Over the past five years, hardly any other artist in music has weaved together a catalog of material as dark and danceable as that of Canadian singer and producer Grimes. By making the slick production style and staid framework of ’80s pop contemporary and marrying it with a wide range of dejected, unsettling, and unsettled lyrical content, her music has a tendency to adopt the aesthetic of a gothic dance party raging at 2 a.m. at the modern equivalent of Studio 54. On her latest record Art Angels the room spins faster than it ever has before as she once again plumbs her own emotional depths with a smile on her face and scream in her heart.
Much like Kevin Parker of Tame Impala or Kurt Vile, Grimes handles almost every single facet of the writing, performing, recording, and producing process by herself (she also designs her album covers, creates her own videos, and choreographs her own stage show), and much like Vile and Parker she’s an exacting perfectionist. Art Angels only exists in the form that it does because she recorded an entire album’s worth of different songs that she ended up scrapping because it didn’t cut the mustard.
It seems clear that while Grimes has the ability to create some of the most infectious and hook-driven music around, her ambitions are much larger. Songs like “Flesh Without Blood” and “Realiti” are about as traditionally framed and catchy as anything you’re liable to hear on the radio. But then there are other moments, like “Scream,” which heavily features Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes going off on a singular twangy, repetitive guitar melody and a break beat before the whole climaxes in a tornado of hellish wailing.
That is the most extreme and striking example of the duality of Art Angels and in most places those two impulses are coalesced in a far subtler manner. The song “California” is a prime example. From the sonic level, it’s a track that seems tailor made to soundtrack the state’s signature sunshine and good vibrations. You can get wrapped up in its effervescence until the words sink into your brain and the true pain and hurt behind it all seeps into your heart. “California, you only like me when you think I’m looking sad / California I didn’t think you’d ever treat me so bad.” It’s “California Dreamin’” flipped on it’s head and it’s absolutely devastating.
The full weight of Grimes’ abilities as both a producer and singer are brought to bear on the “Kill V. Maim.” As a song, it’s almost bi-polar in its execution, with the singer veering wildly into a number of different lanes between her own signature pitch, vocal-chord ripping shrieks, and early-period Kanye West chipmunk squeaks splayed over a dance track tempo that would no doubt bring a knowing smile to Madonna’s face. It’s the entirety of everything Grimes has tried to accomplish on Art Angels in one four-minute package. It’s slick and gritty, fun and funny, and horrifying and grotesque all at once. It will also make you shake your ass like nothing else.