DIY phenomenon goes full mall pop
by Jericho Cerrona
Art Angels, the latest pop creation from Montreal native Clare Boucher, has one of the year's most startling album covers. Featured is a deranged three-eyed alter ego dispensed in mid-air; the neck breaking apart in multi-colored strands, bracketed by a k-pop Anime-style border. Looking at this bold image, one expects Boucher to take the experimental route in deconstructing what a pop record can be in 2015. This, however, is a partial misunderstanding of the direction the 27-year-old musician has been moving towards all along. Both Geidi Primes and Halfaxa were released in 2010, and both shunned commercial accessibility, even as remnants of melody could be heard creeping out from the edges. By the time Visions dropped in 2012, the zeitgeist had caught up with Grimes' garageband-produced, self-taught aesthetic, with a very clear attempt at capturing where pop music was heading writ large.
The thing about Visions that was interesting, beyond Boucher's bizarre chipmunk-like vocals, was the fact that it was closer to hip-hop and R & B than dream-pop, electro, and shoegaze; all genres to which Grimes had been lumped into. The results were beguiling, but also frustrating; as if she was making a stab at an artier version of Mariah Carey filtered through tumblr and Instagram culture. The album received critical raves and positioned Grimes as a forward-thinking pop artist on the brink of something big, but like a lot of musicians working in this social media-saturated environment, she was ultimately known more for her publicized spat with Ariel Pink concerning misogyny and gender roles in the music industry. Which all leads, naturally, to Art Angels. If context is everything, then the knowledge that Grimes apparently scrapped an album's worth of "un-pop, weird crap" tunes is instructive to understanding that whatever abrasive underground mystique she had possessed is of no use to her anymore. This is the work of someone with big ambitions and even bigger production values; resulting in a maximalist teeny-bopper pop record for the millennial crowd.
Like Visions, Art Angels seems to be gaining traction as some kind of mission statement from an artist who was christened before she was even ready for pop royalty. There's both a blessing and a curse in Grimes' move away from lo-fi Garageband loops and abrasive high-pitched vocal yelps into the realm of likable, dance-ready pop singles. The blessing is that some of Boucher's worst instincts--a penchant for repetitive synths and simplistic production, are jettisoned completely here. The curse, though, is that she's replaced those bad instincts with a few worse ones. Her need to replicate a kind of early 00s Europop, 90s dancepop, and bubblegum aesthetic means that the elements about her music that intrigued before--that alien falsetto, the reckless experimentation--is streamlined into a much more approachable package here. This is not a problem at face value, and Art Angels has its fair share of moments that go against mainstream radio pop, but the record completely lacks edge. What we desperately need in 2015 is pop music that's daring, angry, and challenging the status quo. For all her personality and undeniable tenacity as a performer, Grimes has unconsciously lumped herself into the boring position of appealing to the culture's unfortunate need to encourage positivity as as a means to an end.
This notion makes sense, especially seeing as how we live in ominous times, but do we really need a song like "California", in which Grimes does her best Taylor Swift impression, complete with dancehall beat and a sugary chorus? It's the kind of regressive pop single that Boucher is smart enough to realize is pure pastiche; a soulless piece of millennial propaganda which affects a kind of sunny disposition in the face of dissatisfaction. California/ you only like me when you think I'm looking sad, she sings, but this comes across like faux-attitude rather than anything resonant. Perhaps the real question here is whether or not pop music is even sufficiently equipped to provoke, challenge, or strive for resonance anymore. Still, if Grimes is going to go full pop accessibility, then she needs stadium-sized hooks, and this album just doesn't have them. It's this odd middle ground of trying to straddle commerciality with an idiosyncratic vision that will likely have critics drooling over this thing, but in reality, Art Angels is a compromised record. For every interesting track, like the psych-electro mashup with Janelle Mone "Venus Fly", there's a power-pop banger like "Pin" or the sugary R & B-flavored "Realiti" which sound sonically impressive, but also oddly innocuous. Something like the gothic-tinged club-ready stomper "Kill V. Maim" fares better, with its four-chord guitar progression, driving beat, and Boucher's aggressive cheerleader-style chanting. Energetic and empty, like all good pop songs should be, and catchy to boot. When she tries her hand at piano balladry, such as on "Easily", the results are a fascinating mixture of cooing feminine warmth and subtlety which bodes well for her future as a Julian Holter-esque chamber pop singer-songwriter. At other times, like the penultimate "Life in the Vivid Dream", there's a move toward the dream-pop folk of someone like Zola Jesus, which could be another mode of future exploration.
Art Angels is a difficult album to readily dismiss, especially in terms of where it sits within the collision of left-field creativity and mainstream pop music. Unfortunately, this isn't some bold reinvention of the form in the same way Visions wasn't an overwhelming artistic breakthrough for bedroom pop artists everywhere. If anything, Boucher's insatiable connection to social media--the incessant Tumblr posts, the feminist leanings, the eye-catching fashion sense--has created a rabid fanbase of mostly teenage girls who very well may embrace the record as a definite reflection of their digital sensibilities. Beyond that, Grimes has successfully pivoted into the mainstream consciousness without completely selling out her M.O. in that this always sounds like a Grimes album even as it lurches, fumbles, and refuses to cohere. If her previous work refused listeners requests for a way into her psyche, then Art Angels blows everything out for maximal effect, culminating in what she herself has described as "the first record I've made with an audience". The problem here is that this audience demands something that will make them feel comfortable with a vision of pop music where the rougher edges are sanded off and provocation is relegated to niche corners of the indie scene. Appeasing this audience, no matter how well-meaning and globally diverse, may in fact be Boucher's most fatal mistake; leaving even some of her most audacious ideas to capture and reaffirm the zeitgeist.