November 12, 2015


The Most Impressive Detail of Grimes' 'Art Angels' Album

Gary Miller/Getty Images
Gary Miller/Getty Images
Grimes (@actuallygrimes on Instagram)
Grimes (@actuallygrimes on Instagram)

If you're a person who gets their music on the Internet and/or reads music writing on said Internet, by now you know that Grimes' new album, Art Angels, is getting rave reviews. Everyone from the hipster sites that championed her for years to mainstream publications previously unconcerned with covering the Canadian musician (née Claire Boucher) are saying that her latest release has successfully melded her offbeat creativity in an accessible way. (See album closer "Butterfly," where she sings from the perspective of the titular insect, but breaks into a dreamy, synth-pop breakdown that could fit onto a Kaskade album.) But what's the most impressive part of Art Angels is how entirely its creator owns its sound: After all, Grimes sang, wrote, produced and recorded all of the album on her own.

This is not a groundbreaking feat: other artists have singlehandedly sculpted entire albums before, and modern-day critical darlings like Kate BushLaura Marling and Julia Holter continue to do so semi-regularly. But Grimes moving into the mainstream pop realm with basically zero outside help is a different type of achievement. In an era in which artists like Kanye West and Frank Ocean can use many co-writers and producers and still get the "modern-day genius" tag thrown at them over and over, what Grimes does on Art Angels is nothing short of breathtaking.

In March earlier this year, Grimes revealed the demo version of a new song called "REALiTi" that was going to appear on her new album but was scrapped. The airy, slightly melancholy version of the song was gorgeous, but Grimes described it in her YouTube description as "poorly recorded" and "a bit of a mess." Perhaps due to the overwhelmingly positive support the song received, "REALiTi" wound up on Art Angels in its final form: the synths were inflated and the vocals were bigger, but it still kept the delicateness of the original to somehow make it even better than what she had first posted.

The process for "REALiTi" feels like a metaphor for Art Angels. Grimes didn't have to change up her formula—"Oblivion," from 2012's Visions, is Pitchfork's No. 1 song of the decade—but she pushed herself to somehow fit inside a pop world that had previously portrayed her as an outcast. And she did so by keeping her spritely singing tone, provocative lyricism and singular vision that previously kept her "too weird" to a Top 40 audience. 

A big part of that success could come from the fact that she didn't have a superstar producer or hit songwriter guiding her in any way. Would a Max Martin or Greg Kurstin collaboration have been intriguing to hear? Of course. However, there are times in which a pop project can suffer get overshadowed by too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen syndrome, and an artist's voice can get muddled. Art Angels was conceived as 100 percent Grimes, for better or worse—and in most cases, it turned out for the better.

If an artist goes from making indie music to full-blown pop, the move is often met with discontent from critics. When Marina & The Diamonds went from the quirky alt-pop of The Family Jewels to the Dr. Luke-heavy Electra Heart, for instance, her Metacritic rating dropped 11 points, even though she still wrote or co-wrote on every song. Ditto Lily Allen, who returned last year with the Kurstin-produced Sheezus album, declared "Give me that crown, bitch, I wanna be Sheezus," and failed to connect with U.S. critics or audiences. Same story: 11-point Meteoritic drop.

Comparatively, Art Angels has, so far, a higher score than her career-making 2012 Visions album and is one of the best reviewed LPs of the year. Yes, Grimes went pop. But she went there on her own—and everyone (even the hipsters!) really, rightfully loves it.