Grimes, a.k.a. Claire Boucher, has never wanted for personality or ambition. But missing from the formula, even as recently as 2012’s breakthrough Visions, has been an organizing principle. With her new album, Art Angels, we finally get one, and while it works out to basically “do everything possible to coalesce avant-garde and pop sensibilities in a way that’s personally satisfying,” that still results in an album with genuine structural integrity.
The move toward “making music for an audience,” as Boucher has put it, may disappoint those who were hoping that their indie hero’s flirtations with accessibility would pass, and that Art Angels would return her to a more experimental style. For the rest of us, the album’s wealth of melodic and rhythmic ideas are a pleasant surprise, especially for the way the more song-oriented forms coax dynamic performances from an artist whose abundant tics never allowed for a sense as to what her actual vocal range might be.
In the past, Boucher often deployed her voice in gratingly one-dimensional ways, as a sustained nasal whine cutting through kitschy GarageBand drum loops, or as an Enya-esque, reverb-drenched specter breathily half-enunciating her lyrics. But the demands of her writing here call for something more assertive, and she’s entirely game: From the way her normalized delivery of the hook on “Flesh Without Blood” counterpoints ecstatic falsetto in the verses, to her pronounced and convincing twang on “California,” to the multi-tracked, high-pitched coos of almost-ballad “Pin,” Boucher finds ways of exploiting the strangeness in her voice while still endearing us to it.
Somehow running down pop dreams hasn’t diminished her freewheeling eccentricity either, from the split-second quote of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landside” that pops up in the middle of “Pin,” to the just-behind-the-beat rhythm (apparently sampled from Rihanna’s dance-floor-filler “Pon de Replay”) that keeps “California” off-kilter, to the no-fucks-given “Scream,” which cedes the spotlight to Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes for what feels like an explicit acknowledgement of the debt Boucher owes to the progressive, contemporary East Asian music her sound has liberally borrowed from for years.
The album’s best track, “Belly of the Beat,” essentially deconstructs the Boucher aesthetic like an indie-pop “Let the Beat Build,” starting in the suspended animation state she was often content to marinate in, especially on 2010’s Halafaxa, then adding new layers of instrumentation—an acoustic guitar here, a walloping 808 there—with each successive lope of its immaculate melody. When it all clicks, it’s a perfect pop moment.
The worst that can be said of Art Angels is that its maximalist ambitions sometimes overshoot the needs of pop, like the efforts of so many millennials who think they can do the form better than ostensibly less self-aware mainstream artists. The only egregious example of this is “Venus Fly,” which starts promisingly, though it recycles the cheerleader call-and-response technique of early-album highlight “Kill V. Maim,” but gets bogged down in drum-n’-bass excesses that bury guest star Janelle Monáe in the mix much like Boucher used to bury herself. That Art Angels is close to an hour long also signifies there’s still some room for Boucher to further focus her ambitions, but this album is the surest evidence so far that she’s game for the challenge.