Never judge a book by its cover. Or, in this case, an album by its sleeve. For, if you were to see the artwork for Grimes‘ fourth album Art Angels and think “well, that looks like a Manga comic strip drawn by a very disturbed five-year-old after a particularly bad sugar rush, I can’t imagine that being very good”, you’d probably move on.
Which would be a huge mistake, of course. Claire ‘Grimes’ Boucher does an awful lot of things very well, but designing album sleeves is not one of them (Visions was similarly terrible, and that was one of the very best albums of 2012 after all). Yet, if you’ve been waiting for three long years for new music from Grimes, a dodgy sleeve is unlikely to put you off. For Claire Boucher is very good at making pop music. Strange, esoteric pop music that sounds like something not quite of this world, but which manages to remain totally accessible.
There are moments on Art Angels that sample Rihanna and could easily sit on Lady Gaga‘s more commercially successful albums. Yet there are other tracks that are as brash and audacious as anything that M.I.A. has come up with recent years. It’s that sense of unpredictability which pulses through Art Angels and makes it such a success. For instance, opening track, laughing and not being normal (the lower case is very important apparently), is orchestral chamber pop, full of piano, strings and Boucher’s falsetto wordlessly warbling away.
And less than two minutes later, we’re straight into the glorious pop rush of California, sampling Pon Da Replay and sounding enigmatically melancholic – as the chorus puts it: “you only like me when you think I’m looking sad”. It’s one of Art Angels’ more commercial tracks, but Grimes hasn’t diluted that experimental edge of hers. So if you want bangers, there’s plenty here – Kill Vs Maim is as extraordinary as you can imagine a song described by Grimes as being “written from the perspective of Al Pacino in The Godfather Pt 2, except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space” could be: a pulsating, clattering cheerleader chant of a song which makes Sleigh Bells sound like Belle and Sebastian.
There’s also the frankly terrifying Scream, which is pretty much a showcase for the Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, and a collaboration with Janelle Monáe, Venus Fly, which sounds about as strange and otherworldly as you’d expect from two proponents of so-called ‘future-pop’. And then again, Grimes can easily pull out a song that, in any other universe, would sit in the Top 10 for several months: Flesh Without Blood is a punchy, instantly addictive electro-pop number that has the same urgent quality as another underrated pop gem, Untouched by The Veronicas.
Realiti is another atmospheric floor-filler, although it doesn’t quite have the same pull as the demo version which was released a few weeks beforehand, while Easily is that most conventional of beasts, a lovelorn piano ballad. On all of these tracks, it’s the production that stands out – as on her previous albums, Boucher has self-produced the whole album and constructs fascinating layers over each song. It’s one of those albums where on each listen, something different crops up. Tracks like Scream or Kill V Maim sound like five different songs crammed into one, and it’s all a bit overwhelming on the first listen.
Indeed, that’s possibly the one criticism that could be levelled at Art Angels – that Boucher’s pleasingly scattergun approach means that it doesn’t hold together as a fully coherent album. Yet after a couple of plays, the weird and wonderful world of Grimes soon starts to seep into you, and soon you won’t be able to imagine an ‘albums of the year’ article without this being on it – no matter what the sleeve looks like…