Review Summary: Reworking her style, Grimes attempts anything but what we’d expect from her on this long-awaited release. It’s a pop album through and through – but does it work?
It’s easy to see why Claire Boucher, the 27 year old renowned for her contributions both musically and artistically under the alias of Grimes, brought more than a splash of colour onto the cover of her fourth studio album ‘Art Angels’. A mix of powerful, punchy yet sometimes struggling pop, the entire release oozes with sweetness. With its initial single and music video Flesh without Blood, Art Angels is equally ambitious as her previous release Visions but seems to take an arguably more accessible and radio-friendly route, even if it does sometimes get overwhelmingly mindless and too repetitive. Grimes has lost the sense of the unpredictable and strange, stepping away from her lo-fi bedroom musician associations and ethereal, mystical sound and into the musical direction of fellow pop princesses and mainstream appeal, especially in the areas of bland instrumentation and failed attempts at catchy motifs, yet this still remains the epitome of her pop ventures on many a track.
Opening track Laughing and Not Being Normal isn’t overly memorable and lacks the ‘replay value’ it needs. Likely to mirror the album and become a live prelude, it’s enthralling to hear Claire step away from her childish, baby voiced vocals and into a sound that could even be described as choral in places. A lot of the sounds here are reminiscent of a personal favourite Circumambient from 2012 release Visions, such as the whirling, Tardis-esque fade out, but this is where the line between new and old Grimes begins to blur.
California immediately drops the album’s momentum. Although it’s a good thing that we can hear the vocals crystal clear, a quality that was often dropped on previous hits such as Genesis, the reflection on what is most likely a personal experience with the album recorded in LA is drab and unexciting. The vocal flips of “in California” leave the door open for genres such as country and this is aided by the instrumentation that steps away from Claire’s previous roots in synths and shifts towards guitar and even ukulele.
Scream, as the second single, is easily a standout track on the album. With the hook translating to ‘if you can’t scream then swallow it down’, this is perhaps some of Claire’s most ambitious and intriguing lyrical work (which leaves a mood of disappointment on the track when many fans won’t be able to understand it). Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes really shines here, especially in the diversity of her verses spanning from powerful to more whispered, seductively toned phrases. Sticking out like a sore thumb, it’s clear to pick up on the aggressive and industrial timbre that Grimes is aiming for but there’s obviously something missing. The need for heavier guitars and a little more power behind the drumming is a shame, but there’s no doubt that this track is full of passion and emotion – even if this is only communicated on Claire’s part by her screams, growls and other animalistic snippets. It’s terrifyingly beautiful.
Although Claire claimed earlier last week that it wasn’t about a breakup and that she no longer writes about love, Flesh without Blood is the perfect pinch of a moderately angry break up song and all around fun track. It wasn’t received well by fans but with the airplay it’s getting it might just give this album the boost it needs to really get out there; pop music sells and Grimes is approaching it in a way that is unique enough to capture those with an ear for the different. It doesn’t fall flat and into the category of another mindless pop song – it’s still undoubtedly Grimes and undoubtedly danceable.
Follow up track Belly of the Beat on the other hand is far less memorable and lacks the same delicious touch of darkness. This track leads me to believe that there are the beginnings of some clear characterisation and plot here but the vocals don’t aid this – they’re all over the place throughout the track and come across as messy. Lyrical depth is missing and the lack of a strong structure is irritating and awkward to listen to. Introductions of an electric guitar hook bring moments where you think the otherwise mundane track will pick up speed, highlighting the potential in what it seems Claire is so close to achieving.
Kill V Maim is another must-have track from Art Angels – it’s transition from cheerleader like refrain a la Bring me the Horizon’s Happy Song to pure power pop is catchy and there are elements where a strong dance track starts to come through. This track lacks some of the grit from the mobster character this title is named after (previously introduced in the Flesh Without Blood video) but the growling vocals and power chords begin to bring back the sense of ‘edge’ that drifts in and out of the album.
The title track itself is very Marina and the Diamonds – it’d fit perfectly with the overall sound of ‘Froot’ but has a splash of the likes of Charli XCX. Easily brings to the table a handful of lovely moments where the more electronic side of things really starts to shine, a contrast to the opening piano and later moments that draw upon 90s R&B as well as modern EDM. The chirpy breakdown here is an interesting choice and sounds generic but this is made up for with the yodel-like vocals expanding what Claire can do with her limited vocal range as well as the incorporation of violin.
Realti, previously heard as an unmastered demo brings some seriously mighty vocals and incredible emotion. With a less melancholy vibe to the demo and plenty of bass, Realti is interjected with wispy, breathy vocals and captures the dream-like, pastel coloured vibes of the cover art. There are some unwelcome changes on my end compared to the demo but the areas of stripped back, thinner textured sound bring about some of the most enjoyable points on the album. Previously as a demo, Realti was the pinnacle of what Grimes had accomplished in many a fans eye – and it’s understandable why.
World Princess, Pt II is the sugar coated sister of the Halfaxa track sharing its name. Drawing upon the idea of different characters through the album (see Kill V Maim), the narrative voice is one far from an onlooker’s image of Claire with us as the narratees being “so far behind” her. Vocal production on this track smashes that of its origins with a futuristic, K-pop driven sound in the same vain as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. With Venus Fly there is something distinctly retro here among the drum machines, a theme throughout the album that wouldn’t see clips of it sounding out of place in the middle of an 80s movie. Guest artist Janelle Monae’s vocals are refreshingly modern and energetic but also work well with Grimes and not overwhelming her weaker voice.
As seen in Venus Fly, Life in the Vivid Dream highlights one of the things that from an optimistic viewpoint really make the album seem promising – although lacking depth and often simply boring, the lyrical work during this track brings to the surface a side of Grimes that is emotional and honest. Unfortunately the transition to Butterfly is poor with the falling pan pipe-like phrases in the opening doing nothing to lift the otherwise uninteresting track even if it is “sweeter than a sugarcane”.
The facts are simple – Art Angels is indisputably a pop album, regardless of what Grimes fans were wanting and expecting. There are still points where the Claire of the past pops in and says hello, yet the leather jackets, eye-liner and touch of grunge have been ditched for the sparkly and more cutesy. It’s also refreshing to see the subtle touches of a concept album executed so well; the idea of Grimes producing the Art Angels as a group of characters leaves plenty up to the imagination of fans yet still hints at the possibility of future visual aids with art being a calling for Claire. This is also added to with the potential for brilliant live performances of these tracks. Grimes still has “mountains to climb” before she achieves a pop album with the commercial success of those such as Taylor Swift’s ‘1989′ but it’s interesting to see her attempting to rewrite her style and the way in which she approaches pop as a genre. Flesh without Blood is a literal description for this album – Grimes has the right idea but needs to breathe life into it and give it the touch of her personality that brings about the beloved quirkiness and unpredictability that made Visions so successful.
FAVOURITE TRACKS – Flesh Without Blood, Kill V Maim, Realti, World Princess Pt.II and Venus Fly.
LEAST FAVOURITE TRACKS – California, Pin and Belly of the Beat.