Back in 2010, if you had asked a Grimes fan if they would call her a pop star, they probably would have laughed. Back then, Grimes, a.k.a Claire Boucher, was known only in small circles as the girl who made quirky electronic music in her bedroom. With high-pitched, breathy vocals that were often distorted amidst fuzzy beats and unorthodox song structures, Grimes’s music always fell on the other side of weird. Although her early style drew comparisons to eerie variations of pop, like darkwave and dream pop, it was never enough to classify Grimes in the vein of modern pop music.
However, on Grimes’s new studio album Art Angels, Grimes is definitely a pop star, even if she takes the road less traveled to get there. The intro track, “Laughing and Not Being Normal,” begins with Boucher on a violin; the entire first minute is devoted to a classical music arrangement with subtle electronic melodies dispersed throughout. Finally, Grimes pierces the track with her high register, singing somberly as the music hushes behind her.
It’s an interesting place to start, especially in contrast to the following track, “California,” which is a style that can be most easily described as electro-country. Boucher takes advantage of the surgary catchiness of the track to throw us off guard: “When the ocean rises up above the ground,” she sings cheerfully, “baby, I’ll drown.” On the next song, “SCREAM,” Grimes indulges in a far more jarring left-turn. The track features guest rapper Aristophanes rapping a steady stream of Mandarin, interrupted by a chorus of blood-curdling screams from Boucher herself.
Things only get weirder when Grimes introduces “Flesh Without Blood,” which is easily the most radio-friendly song she’s ever recorded. “Your voice, it had the perfect glow. It got lost when you gave it up though. Cause you want money; you want fame,” she sings.
In light of contemporary stigma surrounding the use of autotune, my first reaction was to assume this to be criticism on the music industry. However, Grimes has a reputation for rendering her lyrics unintelligible by hiding her voice underneath layers of reverb, so it’s possible that she might be criticizing some of her past music and explaining the pressure she feels from fans who want her to continue with that same style.
After the first half of the album, Art Angels settles down into more of a hypnotic groove. The rest of the album is a collection of fully fleshed-out tracks that play with Boucher’s new confidence in her voice and show off her skills as a producer. There’s definitely more of an emphasis on lyricism and song structure in this new album, much to the disappointment of certain fans who long for the hazy vocal delivery and odd structure of her previous work.
Many fans have even gone as far as condemning her new work, calling her a sell-out. It’s a strange criticism if you take into account the fact that Claire Boucher, like any good artist, is just taking advantage of her skills and how she can be expressive through them. We wouldn’t scoff at the famous sculptor who chooses to display his beautiful paintings, or tell a brilliant novelist that she can’t write a poem because it “isn’t her thing.”
People forget that pop music is just a shortened term for “popular music.” Claire Boucher isn’t afraid to use the popular as well as the unpopular to achieve a response from her listeners. Yes, Grimes is a pop star who makes pop music, but she’s first and foremost an experimental artist who is always on the hunt for new ways to steer off the path, and Art Angels is just one of her many detours.