If you were expecting Claire Boucher—a.k.a. Grimes—to completely retread the past on Art Angels, you may be in for a disappointment. The ethereal, unassuming sound of her previous album Visions has been thrown out the window, making way for something bombastic, colourful and bursting at the seams with new influences. There’s a lot of musical ground covered across the album, and it’s much to Boucher’s credit that she’s tackled it all with such skill: Art Angels is a raging success, and a seriously powerful career-defining moment.
Lead single Flesh without Blood isn’t a solid indicator for the entire album, but it embodies its attitude perfectly: A vague reference to the style of Genesis lies at its core, but on the surface it presents as a bouncing, energetic pop song laden with guitar and hand claps; Boucher’s light, ambient style of singing is still intact, but tweaked to the perfect level to fit the track. Similar tracks appear throughout the album, with California presenting itself early; it’s not quite as bombastic, but its riffs and stomping beats sampled from Rihanna’s Pon de Replay are along the same lines.
The album does feature some truly strange tracks, the most prominent being the primal Mandarin rap track SCREAM as led by Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, and the mixture of Janelle Monáe and Boucher on the dark yet sugary electro track Venus Fly, more due to the mixture of artists than its style. Kill V. Maim, however, is the pinnacle: The guitar and drum style of the verses and rising beats of the pre-chorus hint at a standard rock track, but the chirping cheerleader-style pre-chorus and helium fuelled chorus are an unhinged collection of dance-rock rhythms. Her Japanese pop influences are evident here; not quite as strong as elsewhere on Art Angels, but the nigh inhuman vocal editing seems to parody the expectations of dolphin-register vocals often held by outsiders looking into the Japanese music scene. Also, if you had any doubts about the state of Boucher’s lyrics, hearing a song about Al Pacino as a gender-swapping, space traveling vampire in The Godfather Part II will surely put your doubts to rest.
But while the likes of Flesh without Blood and Kill V. Maim stand out as top tier, the best that Art Angels has to offer is its surprisingly accessible title track, Artangels. Mixing funky 80s style guitar riffs with a sparkly pop arrangement for a Grimes track seems unbelievable at first, but Boucher sounds perfectly at home alongside the bubbly summer track. As the centrepiece and title track, it highlights her career shift perfectly, and shows us a more vibrant and confident Grimes who is truly in control and happy with herself. The critically acclaimed fan favourite REALiTi also returns, featuring a much more substantial arrangement, with stronger drums, Boucher’s vocals pushed towards the front of the mix and ample guitar; the ambient charm of the original demo is partially lost, but gives way to a different, yet still quality track anyway.
For an artist who was placed so precariously on the fringes of the pop genre after her breakout moment, it’s initially strange to see her take such an accessible sound and run so far with it. Thankfully it’s a guise she wears well, and in turn it transforms Art Angels into a confident and vibrant album. That little twisted Grimes charm is still clearly visible as well, tying it into her discography perfectly. So rather than seeming like she’s sold out, it appears that Boucher has easily embraced her newfound pop exposure and used it to create something that’s as fresh as it is familiar, making for one of 2015’s clear pop highlights.