I’m in a hotel room just outside Montreal in July, not exactly homesick but kind of bored: I’ve done the touristy things, visited the memorable spots and ate at Schwartz’s deli. Instead of listening to the music I’m supposed to be reviewing, I log onto the hotel PC and queue up Grimes’ new song “Realiti.” The swooping synths kick in and Grimes sings “but I go back alone…”
At times, 2015 has been a rough year. Not that it matters to you but, I dunno, it’s been weird. I’ll have anxiety so bad I’ll feel like a belt is tied around my chest and get headaches on an almost daily basis. I’m waking two, three times a night. I feel lousy when it’s nice out and like shit when it’s not.
Maybe part of it is me. As I turned 29, I found myself thinking long and hard about where I’m going in life and the kind of things I believed about myself. When I sleep at night, I sometimes see myself as someone else, notably different, but indistinct. I’ll lay in bed and think and feel like I’m almost at a breakthrough at figuring my shit out, but just like that it’s gone.
All of this has nothing to do with Grimes, but it has everything to do with Grimes, too. Something about her music, it’s almost-mystic vibe, a sense of coming out of fog and emerging from the mountains and her ever-changing voice, constantly moving and shifting, has been resonating with me. I have days where nothing feels right, but I’ll put on some of her music and everything feels better in a way it’s hard to describe and probably pointless to try. But I’m going to try to explain why I got a copy of Art Angels a week or so ago and listened to almost nothing else since.
When an artist is so devoted to doing it all themselves, it has certain effects on their music. An album like Visions is great, but it’s also bedroom music, written and composed on a computer. It’s great for listening at home but does it translate to live performance? Other bedroom musicians – Washed Out and Wild Nothing, for example – now tour with full bands.
Whenever I see Grimes live, she’s working at a bank of keyboards and equipment (often lavishly decorated with flowers) while dancers, lights, and effects give the crowd something to look at. This isn’t a knock on her, but more an observation of why I’ve never felt the need to go see her live even though I listen to the single version of “Realiti” once or twice a week.
On the break between Art Angels and Visions, Grimes taught herself to play guitar. And although she’s learned other instruments, her guitar playing is the thing about Art Angels I keep thinking about, an element that’s pushed her music into a new dimension. See, as much as I love her new record – and I like it a lot, if you haven’t noticed yet – I keep thinking “what happens live?”
In the past, Grimes has spoken obliquely of a bad experience working with other musicians. And she’s always made a point of doing things herself, her way. She plays everything, engineers her own records, and produces the album art. But if her music is taking a new direction – it’s moving from the abstract, ethereal world of the internet and into the physical realm – I’m wondering if she’ll audition a band, rehearse them until they sound the way she wants and lead her own group, like Joni Mitchell or Carla Bley used to do back when they were making their own, stylized and personal documents.
Joni’s a name I don’t see coming up too often when Grimes is discussed and maybe that’s a matter of taste. But the more I listen to Art Angels the more I think about Joni and her music. She started one place and moved into a vein of jazz, folk, and rock that nobody else has ever quite mastered like she did. True, she worked with some real heavyweights at the prime of their creativity: Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, and Vinnie Colaiuta. But between The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Wild Things Run Fast, Joni had a hell of a streak, too. Everyone says they love Blue but if I had to take one Joni record with me to a desert island, it’d be Shadows and Light and I wouldn’t have to think for more than a second.
Like Joni Mitchell, Grimes is an artist, someone who’s just as at home with the visual arts as with music. Both write highly personal songs – Joni’s sung about ex-husbands and putting her first child up for adoption while Grimes has publicly talked about her anxiety issues and sexual assault – and, as they hit their late 20s, both struck a creative vein that took them far beyond the limits of where they started. Joni was a folkie, Grimes an electronica artist. And while I guess Art Angels is a dance record, limiting it as such is like lumping The Hissing… into the folkie bin next to wooden guitar lightweights like Arlo Guthrie. It’s really so much more than that: it’s expansive, it’s experimental, it takes a little bit of everything and makes them into something new.
In the past, I’ve written about Grimes as a character, someone Claire Boucher takes on when she makes music. It’s still the case; her voice pitches high in a sing-song kind of chirp, swoons low for emphasis and but generally sounds more human than it has in years past. Before where she let it swirl around in the ether, how it’s honed in and direct. When she sings on “Belly of the Beat” she sounds stunningly human; compare it to older songs like “Circumambient” where her voice comes at you from everywhere all at once, fading into digital distortion and haze.
There’s a palpable sense of confidence on Art Angels. Which isn’t to say Visions wasn’t confident, but more like she’s got a swagger now. Or, in other words, sometimes I wasn’t sure where her music was going on first listen but I always trusted she was going somewhere interesting with it. The last time I had this feeling was with Kanye West’s My Dark Twisted Fantasy. Art Angels is in hella good company.
How many artists can you say that for? How many times have you heard the first ten seconds of a song and knew you weren’t going to like it? How many times have you thought a song goes on too long or that the pieces weren’t adding up? But here, even at her most experimental, there’s a sense of control. Even when she works in weird synth noises, when a song breaks into a bollywood-esque beat or Aristophanes starts rapping in another language, Grimes has a plan for it all and everything adds up.
Obviously, the big single here is “Flesh Without Blood.” With a driving guitar part and pounding drums, this track has a rock energy her music’s never had before. Which isn’t to say it also isn’t immediately recognizable: she loves her warm, analog keyboard sounds, breakdowns in rhythms and lush, layered backing vocals. I think it’s her strongest, most powerful song. To me, it sounds like it’s addressed to a shitty ex who’s dragging her down. But it could just as easily be a kiss off to her old label or people who’ve tried to put her into a box.
To be fair, there are moments on Art Angels I’m not ecstatic about. The new mix of “Realiti” strips away the ambience and fog, turning into more of a euro-dance banger. It’s sharper, leaner and cleaner (and a step slower, too, I think, putting it in a different key); you can make out her words now. It’s a nice example of how expressive her voice is when she’s not burying it under layers of noise. I’m also not crazy about “Life in the Vivid Dream,” which actually sounds like something Joni might’ve sang back in the day, and I’m positive I’ve heard the opening riff from “Butterfly” in a half-remembered video game from my mid-90s shareware youth.
But these are all really minor concerns. From start to finish, Art Angels is not only Grimes strongest record yet but one of the best I’ve heard this year, or any year. Maybe in a year we’ll be asking how she can top herself or if her Great Lost Record is some kind of masterpiece or whatever she’s been posting about online. But for now, I’m glad “Realiti” was more than a one-off single. Strongly recommended.