Premature Evaluation: Grimes Art Angels
Well, now we know where the last almost-four years went. You don’t just make an album like this overnight. Grimes has been working on her follow-up to 2012’s Visions for what feels like forever, and she had to step up just about everything about her music to do it. Art Angels is just a huge leap forward. It’s loud and complicated and textured and catchy as fuck. Its weirdest songs still qualify as bangers, and its most straightforward and immediately lovable songs are still deeply, resolutely odd. The problem with the Premature Evaluation format is right there in the title: By and large, I’m hearing these songs the same time that you are, and often that means working to, very quickly, form opinions about dense and complicated pieces of work here. That is absolutely an issue here. There’s a lot going on on Art Angels, and it’s almost overwhelming. But this time around, the only real question is whether this is some sort of generational classic or whether it’s merely a great album. Because it is, at the very least, an absolutely fucking great album.
People have lately been discussing Grimes’ recent sound — or, more accurately, her sounds — as if she’s mastered perfectly calibrated, down-the-middle pop music. She hasn’t. It’s not what she’s doing. Her voice and sensibility are still a million miles away from those of, say, Taylor Swift. She’s too interested in flitting through the margins of her own songs, and in building these hallucinatory sound-kaleidoscopes, than she is in making grab-you-by-the-throat songs. But on Art Angels, she draws more from the straight-up pop music both past and present, that she loves so deeply. Grimes produced the album herself — just as she does with all her albums — and she pulls in all these great sounds: Twangy surf-guitar runs, crisp early-’90s breakbeats, dancehall drum patterns, ravey bloops, neo-classical string figures, chipper riffs that remind me of Len’s “Steal My Sunshine.” And she’s done it with confidence and force. She’s worked hard on making sure every last sound on the album comes across with maximum force and impact. She’s halfassed nothing here.
This will, doubtless, bother some people. Visions, the album that brought Grimes to almost-fame, was a very different piece of work, ghostly and oblique and beguiling. It played around with pop music forms, too, but it did it with a sense of distance and curiosity. Grimes hadn’t yet developed the skills and the resources that she has now, and so the end result came across as being closer to indie rock than what she was probably hoping. Well, there ain’t a damn thing indie rock about Art Angels. This time around, she’s not letting the colors bleed into each other. The sounds are hard and bright and bold and defined. Individual moments remind me of, say, early-’90s George Michael, or of Fatboy Slim’s “The Rockafeller Skank.” She’s playing with these sounds, not recreating them, and there’s nothing as linear as “Go” the single she released last year. But if you listen to Visions and Art Angels back-to-back, the effect is sort of like putting your glasses on in the morning and suddenly everything blurry comes into sharp focus.
The curious thing about Art Angels is that she’s using these incredible, impeccably arranged sounds to write about internet haters, or maybe about unwanted internet attention. Now: There are a lot of songs on Art Angels, and I don’t really know what most of them are about. To hear Grimes tell it, there’s a song about actual angels and another about butterflies coping with deforestation, though neither of those interpretations is all that obvious to someone coming fresh to the album. But on some of the album’s most immediate highlights, those internetty feelings seem to be prime concerns. The album’s first full-fledged song is “California,” a bright and lovely stunner of a song that features Grimes reaching out and hitting notes I’ve never heard her hit on the chorus. (She pretty much turns into a country singer on the hook; it just knocks me out.) It’s a great song, and it’s about worrying that people like you for the wrong reasons: “The things they see in me, I cannot see myself / When you get bored of me, I’ll be back on the shelf.” And first single “Flesh Without Blood” is structured as a breakup song, but it turns out to be directed at fans who think she’s turned toward pop because she’s chasing the money. For some of the song, she’s singing from the perspective of someone running her down: “Your voice, it had the perfect flow / It got lost when you gave it up, though / Cuz you want money, you want fame.”
Songs like these are insular and self-involved in some aggravating ways; you want to tell her to stop reading the comments section and just to go out and exist in the world. But on the other hand, that’s become a weirdly universal problem. We all reveal little bits of ourselves to people we don’t really know, and then we wonder if we said too much. We get severely bummed when people take something that we posted on the internet the wrong way, and yet it won’t ever stop us from posting stuff on the internet. So maybe the Grimes of Art Angels is a new voice of a don’t-read-the-comments generation. In a weird way, Art Angels reminds me of The Marshall Mathers LP. The Eminem of The Slim Shady LP was a big star and an important rapper, but he wasn’t that famous. He wasn’t cover-of-Newsweek famous, or send-parents’-groups-into-frothing-tizzies famous. But he spent the entire Marshall Mathers LP working up a fury about parents’ groups and the perils of fame, and the album, paradoxically enough, made him famous enough that he faced so many more of the situations that he was already rapping about. At least outside the internet-music bubble and the fashion world, Grimes is not all that famous now. And I don’t think Art Angels will turn her into a radio-pop star or anything. She’s still too weird to reach Ariana Grande levels. But Art Angels is going to bring her to audiences who might’ve never heard her — which will, of course, mean that a whole lot more people will have opportunities to misinterpret her. The cycle continues.
But whatever feelings might be driving this music, Art Angels is an album that absolutely bursts with ideas. And even after only keeping it on repeat for a while, it’s immediately obvious that these songs will have a life beyond their whole anticipated-internet-celebrity-album context. They won’t get lost in the noise that surrounds the Grimes persona. They’re too good. Every last song on the album is good, and I can’t wait to hear these songs at a party, or coming from a passing car window, or in a movie trailer — anywhere but the internet, really. These songs deserve better than the internet. They deserve to be out in the world.
Art Angels is out now on 4AD. Stream it below.