Grimes – Art Angels – Review

John Preston

Grimes fanatics have never accepted that the ‘demo’ of her song written for Rihanna (but never taken) ‘REALiTI’ could possibly be anything other than the finished track, such is its perceived perfection. Vocals mistily buried beneath sheets of warm synths, lyrics just out of reach and a prominent trance hook which would have made the song stand out on the Visions album purely because of its on-the-nose replication of an already established genre.

Well, ‘REALiTi (demo)’ now appears on Art Angels as plain ‘Realiti’. Although instantly recognisable from its first few chords and the plaintive house piano, it is initially extremely disconcerting to hear Grimes’ vocals so high up in this new, final mix. Every word is audible and rings out clearly while musically the beat is bigger and more instantly appealing, whilst other elements have been removed completely. It sounds full and dusted-down and how you feel about the new, glaringly visible ‘Realiti’ compared to the old may also reflect your reaction to this, the new Grimes album.

Much has already been written about what Art Angels will sound like given that it’s Grimes’ first ‘proper’ pop record, a label that could have also been applied to chunks of Visions also.

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Now signed to Roc Nation and three years in the making, maybe the first thing that is immediately clear is that this does not sound at all like Taylor Swift and her first fully-blown pop album 1989. Neither does it sound like Carly Rae Jepson’s blissfully melodic second album or Ellie Goulding’s Delirium, an album released in the same week as Art Angels and produced by several of the world’s biggest hit men.

And that’s probably because this is Grimes’ record – she wrote, produced and played all of the instruments on every song. Much like Dawn Richards’ episodic Black Heart from earlier this year (another artist refuting industry involvement) Grimes creates a world that is intrinsically hers – the rough and the smooth, it’s all her own doing.

Following the schlocky horror theme intro of ‘laughing and not being normal’, ‘California’ is indeed a relatively straight-forward pop song for any artist. Country tainted, thigh slapping and hand clapping bolster a crisp, youthful beat with Grimes’ minor-key verses recalling some of the very best Madonna songs of old.

The remainder of the first half of Art Angels, where guitars feature in varying degrees on almost every track, sounds nothing like ‘California’, the rug pulled dramatically out from the off.

Comparisons have been made with the album’s first single ‘Flesh Without Blood’ and Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone’, an inconceivable thought even a couple of years ago but dead on. The tightly plucked verses and guitar propelled musicality of both tracks are indeed closely related but Grimes’ self-production employs right-ear metallic clangs, dubby vocal reverb and a chorus which is more subtle than stadium. Both songs end up enormous and brilliant.

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‘Kill V. Maim’ and the title track make up the album’s dual-centrepiece and on first listen are messy but gripping, multi-stranded electro-pop experiments with a solid core of 80s British chart pop sounds. The chorus of ‘Art Angels’ is gorgeously harmonised and has an intro that sounds like A-ha and ‘Kill V. Maim’ mixes indecipherable cheer-leading chants with sped-up maniacal vocals sung through a gender-bending psychopath.

Like the exuberant, in-and-out of focus techno-stomp of ‘Venus Fly’, which features guest vocals from Janelle Monae, these eccentric and joyful colour bombs begin to make more sense the more they’re revisited.

‘Easily’, on the other hand, is an immediate girl-group piano ballad that somehow mixes PC music (the sound of a squeaky deflating balloon) and, on the last chorus, weeping violin. Nintendo 64 and turn-of-the millennium RnB merge on ‘World Princess Part II’ with Grimes’ trademark helium vocals making a return.

Two of the records that Art Angels most brings to mind are Madonna’s 2000 Music album and Post, Bjork’s second solo long-player from the mid-90s. Two global pop stars subverting their own rules brilliantly – commercially minded Madonna at her most experimental and Bjork’s most embracingly accessible and immediate record in a career that defines conceptual art-pop.

The spirit of these records, one of abandonment and an eclectic and heart-swelling sense of artistic freedom, is one that Grimes seems to be feeling too. On the album’s final track, and also the record’s most complete and pure moment, all of the elements add up to a song that could have appeared on either of these seminal albums.

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‘Butterfly’ may begin shanty-like and twee but punches itself dramatically up into the air with massive hooks and Grimes’ reassurance that she’ll never be your dream girl.

Art Angels, then, is deliriously mad and constantly thrilling. Grimes has made an album that isn’t comparable to what could now be considered her new contemporaries (did anyone really expect her to?) but instead shares the same grandiose and risk-taking bravado of some of the best pop records of the last 25 records.

About John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.

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