Grimes - Art Angels
In an act both brave and hopeless, artists sometimes assemble thrown-together installations. In thousands of galleries across the world, we see works bursting with vague associations — rocks, marbles, trash maybe flecked with splatters of paint, cowboy hats, photographs of California, and big paper mâché anime eyes held up by strands of bent chicken wire. Each one of these piecemeal materials carries with it a distinct flavor, a sort of acoustic, resonant feeling that harbors apparent or possible meanings. How did this happen? This is the beauty of association. The associative project of juxtaposition, curation, and assemblage functions with such force that it can offend, evoke, and beautify on unparalleled, immediate levels.
With Art Angels, Grimes demonstrates the lushness of disparate evocation in the singular, trite medium of art-pop, a medium that’s seen a beating through gross mistreatment by artists’ attachment to highly specified associations. I would argue that these associations have been particularized as an attachment to instrument — be it art-pop via the guitar, verging into the masculine fetishes of art rock; or, infinitely, art-pop via the moldy husk of the synthesizer, where we are forced to see real human imaginations dance with the history of the instrument as it exists in very specific sci-fi scenes, kitsch, vapor, nostalgia, or historical reenactments. Alternatively, art-pop has been particularized by the artists’ attachment to identity — some persona that gallivants along to the weirdness of their constructed look and feel. We all get excited by the prospect of a character emerging and expressing themselves candidly before our weary eyes.
Although flirting with this historical information, Art Angels avoids being mere archival by functioning as a photomontage of the art-pop genre mirrored in glorious, impeccable costume, one that obscures instrument and identity alike through its poetry. Yes, Art Angels is a poetic outfit, with shag-rug shoulder pads stitched to denim and feathery boas entangled with heaps of gold jewelry. Turquoise nail polish is barely seen beneath nickel studs superglued to cuticles; deep makeup is secondary to accessories like a waist draped in four different-sized Katanas, a velvet Cowboy hat, or a flowing red scarf emblazoned with peacock feathers. Art Angels, as an outfit, is opulent. As a record, it’s on the verge of dementia. The album’s total intuitive mastery of association and juxtaposition steps with a glorious amnesia that forgets all association once it’s apprehended, a fact that gives the record near limitless pacing and replay value. Reference after reference fly by arbitrarily, allowing the potential of association to happen in the flux of rapid, voracious consumption. Heck, the arrangements are so ornate that a buttery ASMR sample tacked on to the end of “California” can slip by unnoticed, lost amidst country-stomp, Prince-bounce guitars and justified proclamations that “this music makes me cry.” As the album’s first bizarre gem, “California” remarks upon the general modeling of Art Angels — absurdity found in the juxtaposition between gloss and associative roughness; the track is wedged between the jeweled strings of “laughing and not being normal” and the M.I.A. by way of Jack White distaste of “SCREAM.” Some might proclaim the album’s shocking, occasional nausea as tropic destitution. Rather, past the album’s petty love/hate buzz, this is acceleration “sweeter than a sugarcane.”
Similar to Grimes’s visual work — lush ink drawings done in a style comparable to a skilled comic book illustrator or tattoo artist — Art Angels’s momentum is a product of its illustrative detail. The depth of her pen-work finds its sonic foil in how she treats historical information: 90s vocal fetishes, jangly guitars, breakbeats, and souped hardware production. These features are relatively underrepresented in the current pop landscape, although not necessarily forgotten in the streaming culture of 2015, where late 20th-century sitcoms are playing on millennial laptops ad nauseum to rekindle the Tumblr feeds and listening ears of her primarily 90s-born audience. This is heard in the way she treats her voice, occasionally inflected in a Celtic style 4AD flair; it’s also heard in the unorthodoxy of panned guitars, strange volume modulation, dry rhythms, and pockets of wet texture. Overall, the affect develops a non-hierarchical spatiality of both sound and association: projected as a plush work of disturbed and beautiful mass indie culture. “Flesh without Blood” is an exaltation of late-2000s indie-electronica sublimated into ecstasy, fusing Sleigh Bells, Charli XCX, and pop-punk into a gliding, triumphant tune. Quickly, the album’s pacing turns to “Belly of the Beat,” as a curiously pastoral melody molds and twists itself to frenetically upbeat strummed guitars. Both tracks show Art Angels’s likability and weirdness harmonized uniquely and complexly.
Art Angels is the only album this year that genuinely offended me on first listen — odd given the excess of post-critical, post-postmodern releases attempting to shock listeners in 2015. The album shocks with its fearless color palette, grody presence, and almost vulgar sense of fashion. Yet, this vulgarity isn’t necessarily located in its denial or acceptance of art-pop tropes; rather, it exists in the subtlety of its associative patchwork, somewhere in the craftsmanship of how the pieces strangely work together. “Easily” floats like an artier early Britney track; a bone-dry piano is tapped along in a lax staccato, while the melody repeats to an imaginative silver-clad choreography — breakdown and all. “REALiTi” recalls Grimes in her most comfortable atmosphere, the melodic “house show sensibility” of Visions, complete with swirling coos and a steady rhythm that skirts between downtrodden and chirpy. Yet here it’s given a mastering treatment that substantiates the track as a re-listenable tome of heightened pop. The mix is rich and luxurious while providing enough space to get lost in, to get rejuvenated by.
With pacing like a serial manga franchise, the album shines through its relentless ability to grow on you, despite all odds. Grimes recalls references familiar enough to guarantee a slight legibility, yet that coherence is obscured by genuine creativity and strangeness of texture, of melody, of association. The Frankenstein-like composition of “Venus Fly” — a track I was almost certain I would detest — is a celebration of confidence and self-sexualization happening via ascending synths, hilarious subs, and reverb-soaked metallics. The primary melody rejoices in girl-group power pop among trappy buzzes and Janelle Monáe’s broad delivery. Through its pure revelry within and individual treatment of the art-pop format, Art Angels becomes a dynamic structure, a chain of associations photo-montaging the genre progressively with undeniable energy. The album’s closing couplet has the semi-forlorn “Life in the Vivid Dream” longing for excess, for more — for exaltation in the banal grayness of objection and stale perspective. Almost immediately, that plea is answered with the brilliant “Butterfly,” perhaps one of my favorite tracks of the year. The compassionate interactivity of Grimes’s entire body of work becomes realized in this phenomenal outro, as her excellent curation becomes diffuse in the surreal proclamation of immanent beauty. She sings heroically: “It could be anything out there.” The “it” is the seed of possibility in any given association — from butterflies to Sri Lanka — to reassemble in a dance of seemingly infinite possibility, infinite harmony:
Oh, no, it came Higher than an aeroplane Don’t know this song Sweeter than a sugar cane Why you looking for a harmony? There is harmony in everything It’s a butterfly who waits for wind To fly away