Album: Art Angels
Record label: 4AD
Release date: November 6, 2015
After a lengthy hiatus, Vancouver’s enigmatically precocious songstress has returned with a follow-up to 2012’s critically acclaimed Visions. In contrast to her previous releases, marked by their use of analog synths and sequencers and a generally lo-fi aesthetic, Art Angels is a brightly polished, bubbly, boisterous explosion of sound. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything on the album that recalls the subtle, meditative, Eastern-tinged nuances of Geidi Primes’ “Sardaukar Levenbrech” or Halifaxa’s “Sagrad Прекрасный”. In its place are big drums, heavily layered instruments, and an unmistakable sheen coating the album like Saran Wrap – the sheen of radio pop.
Now, to be fair, there’s still a world of difference between Art Angels and, say, Ariana Grande’s My Everything. Grande wouldn’t touch a track like “SCREAM”, with its “I Am A God”-referencing blood-curdling-scream-followed-by-labored-breathing hook and Taiwanese rap verses (care of guest vocalist Aristophanes), let alone frontload it in as the third track on her album. And there’s no creeping sense that Grimes is doing anything obligatory here, no clear delineation between the single, the ballad, the club track, etc. like one would expect from a typical major label pop record. Art Angels is obviously made on Grimes’ own terms. But just beyond the quirky bells and whistles that remind you this is a Grimes album (the chipmunky hook on “Kill V. Maim”, the squeaky bridge on “Easily”, the out of left field afropop sample in “Butterfly”), lie exactly the kinds of catchy hooks, sugary melodies, and easily digestible song structures that one would expect to hear on a Top 40 station.
Not that there’s anything wrong with radio pop, at least inherently. 1989 remains one of the best albums of recent years, and amongst music aficionados the “poptimist” sensibility has rapidly gained ground against the stodgy, outdated “rockist” conception of “real music” vs. everything else, and that’s a good thing, but it feels important to stress the poppiness of Art Angels because it is such a severe departure from her earlier work. Initially, the charm in Grimes’ music came from the minimal, rough around the edges nature of her compositions, evoking images of a young woman dutifully tinkering away in her bedroom. You don’t get any of that on Art Angels, and as such there’s a sense that Grimes’ identity as we knew it has been wiped away by a heavy coating of polish.
So, fittingly for 2015, Art Angels is essentially a Grimes reboot. This Grimes sounds a lot like the one you remember, but now it’s shinier, punchier and produced with a significantly higher budget. Thankfully, it’s more Batman Begins than Fantastic Four, and Grimes generally inhabits her new sphere with poise and confidence. The rollicking four-to-the-floor swagger of “Venus Fly” is immensely enjoyable, equal parts Berlin Techno luridity and K-Pop glamour. Taking cues from Euro Trance, “Realiti” and “World Princess part II” build around leitmotifs, ebbing and flowing but always returning to their earworm synth lines. And the hook of “Kill V. Maim” is emphatically infectious, even with its bizarre pitchshifted vocals and inscrutable lyrics about vampire mobsters.
There’s no shortage of bangers on Art Angels, and there’s a lot of fun to be had, but there are some chips in the veneer of the brand new Grimes. Tracks like “California”, “Flesh without Blood” and “Belly of the Beat” are all sugar and no spice, sickly sweet bubble gum ballads which sound incongruously toothless in comparison to the album’s deeper cuts. With the clear production pushing Grimes’ voice more to the forefront than ever before, her vocal idiosyncrasies can turn from charming to grating. And from time to time longtime fans may feel a tinge of longing while listening to Art Angels. It’s not wholly possible to tell if it’s an issue of objective quality or simple nostalgia, but as with most reboots, it’s hard to shake the perception that it just doesn’t measure up to the original.
LIKEYOUSAID Critic Score: 7.5/10
Article by Mike Dunn.
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