I’m always a bit reluctant to check out full albums from pop acts who are gaining momentum in the mainstream. Of course being popular doesn’t automatically disqualify them from making good music, but most of today’s artists in the genre, are focused on visual gimmicks and hype rather than creating enough interesting music to fill an entire album . Even gifted artists like Adele, rely heavily on the ‘I only do songs to showcase my vocal range’ trope that has made a lot of talented singers before her, a lot less interesting.
The media developed a business model insisting artists have to look or act weird to be taken serious. Lady Gaga wouldn’t have come close to the charts if it hadn’t been for her outlandish wardrobe. KISS would be no different than The Bay City Rollers without their make-up, and even industry royalty like David Bowie, couldn’t make a splash before becoming Ziggy Stardust! Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate theatrics in music as much as the next guy, but it should never be the main focus of an artist who is begging to be taken seriously. Credibility is something they must earn.
I caught a few songs from Grimes on XM Radio over the past year or so and nothing really stood out to me as memorable, but thanks to the constant suggestion from a couple of my friends, I eventually gave in and gave her latest album Art Angels a proper listen. I was surprised! Not only did I enjoy it within my very first listen but it quickly became one of my favorite pop albums in the last decade.
The album starts with an intro that combines an orchestra arrangement with a short, operatic vocal line, that would feel at home at a ballet recital. Right when the song gains some sort of momentum, it takes a dramatic turn and swirls out of control before abruptly cutting into the next track that happens to be a sing-song pop anthem. Even as a seemingly light radio friendly song, California’s lyrics deal with pop culture’s fixation with superficial depression and the west coast as mystical place of magic and happiness. With the self aware nature of the lyrics, it’s obvious this is not your typical pop record.
The rest of the track list is just as unpredictable as the intro songs. Scream features an Mandarin rap over a soundscape of synthetic beats and strobe lights, Kill V. Maim is to rave as what punk is to rock n roll, Belly Of The Beat flirts with world music while maintaining a pop hook that begs the listener to sing along, and that’s just half of the album! Twists and turns happen in just about every song and you are never really sure where the next plot twist will take you.
Grimes may not have a giant voice to sing power ballads, but what she does have is a unique style. The album plays like an avant-garde experiment that infuses flavor of alternative rock, pop, hip-hop and electronica music to keep it from being a complete pretentious bore. Combining experimentation with pop sensibility is not an easy task, but she pulls it off in this endearing way where it never feels like you’re hearing a studio born, mass produced tool from a group of engineers. There is plenty of soul and personal nuance to be found in the album, where you would least expect it. It’s witty when it wants to be, it’s touching and vulnerable when it needs to be, and uncompromising where it sees fit, all without being self-indulgent or abrasive.
When performing live, Grimes is on stage by herself, surrounded by a keyboard, drum machines, and a synthesizer, twisting knobs and pressing buttons all the while singing harmonies with herself through a delay pedal. It’s this make-shift, do-it-yourself mentality that sets her apart from other pop artists. While most of the instrumentation on the album is digital and sampled (save for the occasional guitar riff), it’s performed in a very natural, organic way that sounds as if you are with her, turning the same knobs and buttons from her live show. It’s an element that’s missing from just about every other pop record on the scene right now.
Art Angels is a unique exercise in pop experimentation from an artist who’s clearly in control of her own artistic chaos. Songs construct and deconstruct on the fly, and take all sorts of unexpected twists in delivering an album that is both interesting and fun in ways most electronica records fall short. There’s songs that would fit in your workout playlist, an underground club, glow-stick lit festivals, and maybe even a vampire rave found in any good Anime. If you are looking for something in the pop genre that is not fueled solely on sex or attention seeking theatrics, look no further than Grimes. Art Angels has already proven to be one of the better pop records of the decade and an LP I’m sure I’ll be spinning on my turntable for a very long time.
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Buy Art Angels on digital, streaming, and vinyl at GrimesMusic.com