December 2015 - January 2016

Arts & Letters

Blank space

By Anwen Crawford

Photograph by Rankin

Grimes’ puzzling ‘Art Angels’

It is a rule of pop music, rarely flouted, that an artist with a new album to promote will release the strongest song first. So it was, or nearly was, with the 27-year-old Canadian musician Grimes (real name Claire Boucher), who will tour Australia this summer. In October she launched the video ‘Flesh Without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream’ as a preview of her fourth album, Art Angels. The video brings together two separate album tracks (for no clear reason, though it is like Grimes to be obtuse), of which the former is the standout. ‘Flesh Without Blood’ is driven by a guitar line that is confident in mood but attenuated in tone, more like a toy than an instrument. Grimes sings in a high thin voice that she often pitches artificially upwards until she sounds like a cartoon character: Minnie Mouse, perhaps, or Alvin the Chipmunk.

Like the rest of Art Angels, ‘Flesh Without Blood’ lacks any notable bottom end – this is music made for listening to through cheap computer speakers or on a mobile phone. Were it both cleaned up and filled out – stripped of extraneous squiggles but with a more dramatic vocal and a much weightier bassline – ‘Flesh Without Blood’ could be a proper hit. The fact that it’s almost, but not quite, a great pop song is indicative of the tension that marks Art Angels. Grimes gets defensive when critics raise questions about her motivation. “There is so much beauty in music. I wish perceived commercial ambition was not the topic sometimes,” she tweeted in early November, shortly after the album’s digital release. But ‘Flesh Without Blood’ is also a defence of that ambition. “It’s nice that you say you like me / But only conditionally,” she sings.

Grimes’ previous three albums, Geidi Primes and Halfaxa (both released in 2010 as free downloads) and Visions (2012), were moody and echoing. The lyrics were hard to decipher, when there were any lyrics at all. Often, Grimes layered wordless, reverberant loops of her own voice one atop the other, as if infinite versions of her were being refracted through a hall of mirrors. Before the release of Visions, she signed to 4AD, and the insular qualities of her music hinted at the longstanding indie label’s most legendary signing, Cocteau Twins. From the early 1980s to the mid 1990s, the Scottish band invented their own twinkling, mysterious musical galaxy.

Glossolalia has now given way to California. In the years between Visions and Art Angels Grimes moved to Los Angeles, and her new album sounds, overall, like a step towards the American pop mainstream, but a step made by a self-defined outsider who keeps one ear turned towards pop’s geographically peripheral genres: K-pop, Euro disco, Bollywood. It might seem intriguing on paper, but the album itself is glaring and brittle, like an object left out in the Los Angeles sun for too long.

Art Angels is a puzzling listen. It isn’t unpleasant, but it isn’t much pleasurable, either. Ease and pleasure are not the only two worthwhile qualities of pop music, by any means, but Grimes does make me wonder what exactly she is aiming for. On each song she races through a dozen different musical styles and crams in numerous instruments, mostly synthesised. (Grimes plays and records everything herself.)

The album begins with the short prelude ‘Laughing and Not Being Normal’, rather ersatz baroque in style. The title could serve as a Grimes-style affirmation of her own slightly dishevelled, mildly gothic persona. ‘California’, the second track, sounds upbeat, as you might imagine a song with that title would, but doesn’t feel it. In the chorus Grimes manages to stretch out the word ‘California’ to about ten syllables, and her melisma has a whirligig intensity, like something, or someone, on the verge of spinning out of control.

That may be the point. “Cuz I get carried away / Commodifying all the pain,” she sings in the verses, as if upbraiding herself, though later she directs her criticism outwards: “You only like me when u think I’m looking sad.” Art Angels as a whole seems to both personify and pastiche the music industry’s long procession of mooning, pliable California girls. “I don’t behave,” Grimes repeats on the chorus of ‘Kill V. Maim’. In this gender-ambiguous revenge fantasy she declares herself “only a man”, as if she is kicking against the restrictive stereotypes of women in music. She does so in a squealing, pitch-shifted voice that makes her sound like a murderous doll.

Then again, Art Angels might not be a pastiche at all. Grimes has previously declared her sincere, irony-free love of chart pop stars such as Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez (a former Disney child actor turned singer, and a current member of Taylor Swift’s celebrity friend squad). These figures jostle for space on her Tumblr alongside the indigenous Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, and the medieval mystic and composer Hildegard von Bingen. And more than any of Grimes’ previous albums, Art Angels reflects – or rather enacts – this omnivorous musical appetite, one enabled by the internet. Rather than listening from start to finish, one might better navigate Art Angels like a series of browser tabs – in no particular sequence, and without any expectation of coherence or unifying purpose. Still, I find it wearying, in the same way that hours spent skimming through YouTube channels is wearying: in the end, all one’s choices come to sound alike.

Art Angels reminds me most of Emotion, the third album by Grimes’ fellow Canadian musician Carly Rae Jepsen, released in August. Jepsen had a huge breakout hit in 2012 with ‘Call Me Maybe’, but didn’t manage to match it. Like Art Angels, Emotion has a stiff European character (several of the songwriters involved in its making are Scandinavian), and it’s more than a little kitschy in its slavish imitation of 1980s pop sounds. If you carry a torch for Belinda Carlisle – and heaven knows I do – then Emotion is worth a listen. It’s a better album than Art Angels, if only for having been edited more thoroughly. But why not just listen to Belinda Carlisle? Does the world need a retread?

Both Grimes and Jepsen are making music in a context where there is a growing awareness of the neglected histories of women in pop music. One of the results is a rehabilitative attitude towards previously overlooked performers and genres, particularly those that might be seen as girlish. It seems no accident that Taylor Swift – who tours Australia in December – has made a commercial juggernaut out of 1989, her most effervescent album, backed by stage performances that celebrate the camaraderie of her girl gang.

This new focus on the centrality of girls’ contribution to pop music – particularly as fans – is welcome, but chart pop’s champions can sometimes mirror the blanket judgements of pop’s detractors. Not all mainstream pop is bad – but not all of it is good, either. A lot of it is absolute rubbish, made without any greater motivation apart from profit. The music industry is first and foremost an industry, and the industry makes a great deal of money from treating the female body and the female imagination with contempt. That has not stopped women from trying to remake pop music in their own image, and on their own terms.

Grimes’ Art Angels is a possible attempt at this, but an unsuccessful one, in my opinion. It is a hard album to assess because it seems to resist criticism. The task of a critic is to draw distinctions, make value judgements, and measure a work against the traditions of categories and genre; Grimes offers nothing to measure herself against. A truly new work, which creates a new genre, tends to teach an audience how to understand it. But Art Angels doesn’t feel innovative; it just feels confused. If the album is a pop pastiche then, like the Chipmunks, it’s the kind of pastiche that ends up being more vexatious than its source material. If it’s a genuine homage, then it also falls short. Perhaps it’s both? Perhaps it’s neither? I might be asking the wrong questions.

Grimes’ reluctance to be defined by genre is admirable, but in pledging her allegiance to all styles equally she risks seeming disingenuous: all surface, no feeling. In the film clip for ‘Flesh Without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream’ Grimes dances around a tennis court dressed like Marie Antoinette, in a towering lilac wig and huge corseted gown. I’m reminded – and again, I can’t tell if this was Grimes’ intention, or not – of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006). That film was an odd hybrid of music video, fashion shoot and historical drama. It combined lavish detail with a poker-faced tone that allowed you to read it as either a critique of the indulgence on display or a celebration of the same. You could mistake its blankness for profundity, but in the end it was pretty vacant.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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