Unless you explicitly set out to play authentic bluegrass, for instance, categorisation is the bane of every musician. Hailing from the Montreal digital underground, producer Claire “Grimes” Boucher initially combined impressionistic loops and processed cooing with a penchant for melody. She looked like a renegade – candy-coloured hair, self-tattooed hands, mountains of gear. But in the circles into which her first two albums – 2010’s Geidi Primes and Halfaxa (also 2010) – streamed, her vestigial pop sensibility was an apostasy to be downplayed.
Since her third and most realised album, 2012’s Visions, snowballed into an alternative hit, Boucher’s technical expertise has grown exponentially. She is now managed by Roc Nation, the stable where Jay Z developed Rihanna. Having taught herself electronic production, Grimes has mastered guitar, ukulele and violin. Most significantly, her pop ear has emerged from under very fat headphones. This presents a quandary. Is Art Angels – Grimes’s long-delayed fourth record – to be judged alongside your Gazelle Twins, or your Lady Gagas?
Art Angels reveals itself to be an idiosyncratic pop album – replete with cheery hooks, blithe melodies, K-pop nods, 80s sounds, guitars, and much greater structure, where before Grimes artily meandered. It is strikingly original, a kaleidoscopically minded Grimes-authored record, rather than a product buffed by committee. Simultaneously, though, it is an echo chamber in a hall of mirrors, wearing all sorts of peer references on its sleeve, even as Grimes’s own authorial voice remains uppermost.
Opening with piano and strings, Laughing and Not Being Normal waves to Joanna Newsom. Boucher’s top-of-the-range vocal tells us Grimes is still playing with her instrument, a cartoonishly feminised coo; one of the consistent trademarks of her work. The terrific California is Grimes’s version of Taylor Swift’s Welcome to New York. Boucher moved from Montreal to rural Squamish, British Columbia, to LA, marking an acceptance of her more commercial new role. But unlike with Swift, California is racked and bittersweet – there’s a great line about “commodifying all the pain”. Grimes foresees the sea rising up and drowning her.
The excellent Scream, which features Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, is Grimes out-MIA-ing MIA as a hard-hitting global beatmaker. Venus Fly, which features the ArchAndroid herself, Janelle Monae, is hybridised R&B, with carnivorous bass, club-ready breakdowns and an “all cool girls together” vibe. This stellar opening run climaxes with Kill V. Maim, with its Depeche Mode keyboard line, segueing into a guitar hook. Eventually, it turns into a bratty chant-along whose pre-chorus simultaneously recalls Gucci Gucci by Kreayshawn and Bikini Kill; as I write, Lady Gaga is in all likelihood screaming at someone to get that chorus now, or something very like it. “I’m only a man/ Do what I can,” Boucher sings, a transgender chipmunk with hidden fangs.
Piano ballads? Sure. Easily is a love song that swings like the 90s, a saccharine-sweet tune that hides some unexpectedly fine sonic detailing – a little “squip” noise middle-eight, followed by subtly inventive subjunctive musical clauses.
Packed as it is with all this goodness, Art Angels fails to comprehensively blow your mind. Ultimately, Grimes has not reinvented the pop wheel, she’s just driven it off road a little. By Butterfly, the closing track, all trace of the old, weird Grimes seems lost. She tops off her pulsating club-pop with a girly vocal that’s just a girlish vocal, rather than a deconstruction of girlish vocals. “I’ll never be your dream girl,” Boucher sings, as though to pre-empt the point.