Pop music is the new rebellion. Shiny synths and danceable rhythms are the new electric guitar, sending uptight squares running in terror. In this case, those uptight squares are those who would dismiss big melodies and bright sounds as “just pop.” With her new album, Art Angels, Grimes (a.k.a. Claire Boucher) is looking the establishment in the eye and doing things on her own terms.
Hearing the new Grimes album – coming more than three-and-a-half years after the dreamy bedroom pop of her last record Visions – on the surface it sounds like the work of a completely different artist. But go back to “Oblivion,” now hailed as one of the best songs of the decade so far, and really listen to it. Listen to how Grimes expertly crammed four or five times as many hooks into that song as the average pop song, from her lilting “la la la”s to the lopsided bassline to the cascading tumble of syllables of the main melody. Grimes has always been about the inescapable, heart-racing pulse of pop.
In 2013, she was invited to play a DJ set for dance music institution Boiler Room in Ibiza and unleashed Top 40 princess Mariah Carey, pop-punk grandfathers The Ramones and Eurodisco hacks The Vengaboys upon an audience of techno purists. In reality, the style of Art Angels, which draws from those aforementioned artists as well as the edgy, mercurial high tech sound of Japanese and Korean pop, is no surprise. But when Grimes released the first taste of the album last week, the guitar-splattered anthem “Flesh without Blood,” the response was divisive to say the least. Accusations of “selling out” were slung almost immediately.
“Flesh without Blood” is a kiss-off. It seems to address an ex-lover – “..now I don’t care anymore” – but the song could just as easily refer to an adoring fanbase whose love for Grimes was conditional; continuing only as long as she remained “cool.” Art Angels is decidedly not cool. It’s a vibrant and messy record, full of strange twists and turns, but still packed with ear-catching melodies. There are wonderful waves of joy here signifying a woman taking control and shrugging off the burden of expectation. Grimes' distinctive, girlish yowl - once an instrument of introversion - rides these waves with reckless abandon.
“REALiTi,” which was released to a rapturous reception in demo form earlier this year is included in a shiny new fully mastered version. Its silky melody and tender backdrop now sounds absolutely huge. On this record, Grimes shows off not only her gift for melody, but also her incredible production chops. When she initially shared “Scream,” which features a breathless appearance from Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes over a martial marching band beat, surf guitar and whistles, she warned that it should be listened to with good headphones or speakers, to fully appreciate the bass.
These songs are simple on the surface but reveal fine-grained details upon closer inspection. On the lovely “California,” a sunny ode to her new home after relocating from her native Vancouver, Grimes sneaks in a cheeky Rihanna sample. On “Kill V. Maim,” cheerleader chants deconstruct a tale of privileged masculinity running amok. On “Venus Fly,” Grimes is joined by arty R&B star Janelle Monáe for a house-influenced declaration of girl power. Art Angels is so varied and so inventive that inevitably it’s somewhat lacking in cohesion. At times, the way these songs are configured lacks flow and can come across as confusing and unintuitive.
Not everything about Art Angels is killer - the tracks in the album's middle third err towards being forgettable - but the highs are extremely high. On this record, Grimes is digging into musical forms often dismissed as plastic or soulless and well and truly drawing blood. She has created a set of songs so palatable that you’ll be shouting along after one listen, and yet so complex that you’ll be discovering new details after the tenth. Art Angels is a mess, but that’s part of its charm. It’s vital that music and artists this defiant exist.
Art Angels is out now on digital formats, with a CD and vinyl release to follow soon. Grimes is playing at Laneway Festival 2016 at the Sydney College of the Arts in Rozelle. Tickets are still available.