Put on the new Grimes album and prepare for 50 minutes of squeal. Plenty of electroartistes like layering on the high keyboards, but Claire Boucher takes it to the next level — every single instrument on Art Angels, released this month, is a high keyboard, every damn one. Every melodic component is a high keyboard; every textural filter goes through a high keyboard. The pitched drums double as high keyboards. The basslines are played by high keyboards. Her voice, all breathy and girlish yet also weirdly polished, sounds at least as much like a vocoder set to Helium Pitch as it does anything produced by the human larynx. Shrillness connoisseurs, dig in! All you hipsters out there pretending you can hear into the ultrasonic range, pretending that you know what dog whistles sound like and that they actually make rather beautiful music only your mutant ears can discern, this album’s for you!
Claire Boucher, d/b/a Grimes, is an indie-identified experimental singer-songwriter and/or electronica producer who has released some of the weirdest, headiest concept-pop in recent memory. She has her own recognizable sound, a rushing, spiraling glitterhaze whose textural complexity hardly diminishes its melodic precision, and her singing achieves the vocal equivalent of that musical style; she’s most acclaimed for her lyrics, which address, distort, and invert conceptions of gender identity with mischievous satisfaction. Her albums have won raves by everyone from Pitchfork (which in August 2014 named her “Oblivion” the best song of the decade so far) on down, with 2012’s Visions placing 9th in the Village Voice’s year-end Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, and her fanbase seems to be increasing — where Visions’s sales were negligible, Art Angels has already crashed the Billboard Top 40. Indeed, in its well-crafted song structure, hummable tunes, and airtight synthesizer compression, Art Angels announces itself as something like a pop move, and if the music’s precious, intricate swirlyswirl proves she has no idea what pop is, the album’s twice as pleasurable as its predecessor regardless.
Art Angels certainly includes a number of thrilling, upbeat pop songs — “California,” “Flesh Without Blood,” “Easily,” and “Artangels, the glorious title track with its repeated, rubbery synthetic rhythm guitar — but the album is masked behind a panoply of alienation effects so pungent they could make Björk scream: a silly neoclassical instrumental introduction/overture, an interlude featuring Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes’s altogether misplaced snarl, the shrill pitch of the music in general, and, especially, her voice. Where most indie-electro auteurs who even bother to sing display fairly quotidian vocal abilities, Grimes possesses a highly calculated, deliberately mannered voiceprint whose very articulation sets off endless ripples of shrewd, conceptual, ironic significance — effortlessly articulating an absurdly high, seemingly prepubescent giggle, some fantastical cross between Tinky-Winky and the tooth fairy, the maniacal cackling of small children in a pedophobe’s nightmare, she goes so far beyond the merely cute that the music’s ostensibly heartwarming qualities actually give you goosebumps. While certainly treated with untold electronic filters, and certainly immersed in a polished coldness that often makes her voice resemble another synthesizer, she’s also surprisingly vulnerable, expressing breathy tenderness and naked anxiety. Her singing fits right into the glitzy backdrop of her music, which thanks to its own high, light feel produces a similar effect. And it’s her voice that’s the musical key to a shiny, superficial glaze that stands as the album’s greatest alienation effect of all.
Compared to the ethereal, formless Visions, Art Angels certainly locks into more of a groove, deploying solid hooks and memorable tunes even as it lathers them in foamy confetti. From the relatively thorny moments clustered at the beginning (“Scream,” “Kill vs. Maim,” my, what lovely titles) to the relatively nicer, cheerier, more facile moments toward the end (“World Princess part II,” “Butterfly”), the album plays out quite masterfully as its glimmering synthesizer patterns and filigrees and simulated rays of rainbow sunshine unfold, and individual songs gleam with fabulous pop energy. “California” hops around over happy waves of syncopated drum machine and bubblegum rhythm guitar, starting the album with a flash despite a self-involved lyric about her own fame; “Easily,” allegedly her least favorite song here, delights in its own mechanical back-and-forth melody, cruising forward via glistening keyboards and popping bass; the very peak is “Artangels,” whose sparkle and whoosh and shriek adorn a hook so confident and animated it could have been a hit for Taylor Swift. In the music’s glossy surface and in the intense girliness of her vocal performance, she enables an ironic tribute-critique to cuteness, and the whole aesthetic of cuteness surrounding certain expectations regarding femininity, and the whole tradition of singing higher and cuter than comes naturally, as many female singer-songwriters do. There are aesthetic risks to such an audacious, eccentric stance — there’s the risk that the irony might fall flat and turn the music into its object of critique, the risk that the irony might run out of control and suck down all remaining musical enjoyment with the bathwater, the risk that the object of critique might not hold enough musical enjoyment to be worth hijacking. And as it happens, all three mutually exclusive claims apply to Art Angels, as the album deploys plastic pop surface not to bolster its accessibility but to nauseate. No way could Grimes make an earnest pop move; she’s attracted to surface not because she considers it pleasurable but because she considers it grotesque. So in her hands it becomes grotesque. Just try listening to the album straight through without getting sick on multicolored cotton candy and whipped cream and sprinkles and maraschino strawberries and raw high-fructose corn syrup, without craving some Pepto-Bismol, without getting creeped out by her wide-eyed mock-innocence. To truly care for this music one must already have a taste for the sound of the squeal, and not only do I lack such a taste, I think Grimes lacks it too — you can hear, deep down, that she thinks women who whine the way she does are acting against their own self-interest, ironic reclamation be damned. And to drive the point home, she reduces her album’s pleasure principle to nil.
Art Angels reminds me a lot of PC Music Volume 1, a similar (if considerably sweeter and more humane) attempt by ironic outsiders to commandeer cutesy pop shallowness for their own arty purposes. Both remind me of New Anime Nation Vol. 10, one of my very favorite albums of the year. New Anime Nation Vol. 10 is the latest installment in a long line of compilations collecting theme songs from various anime movies and TV series. Most of the songs are in Japanese (though several highlights are in German), some of them explode while others simmer, but they all share a dinky kawaii aesthetic similar to the one Grimes and the troublemakers behind PC Music appropriate. Expertly crafted though these songs may be, there’s nothing arch or condescending about them: that sugary puerility is simply part of the culture, a musical convention intrinsic to the genre of the anime theme song. Despite a sense of cold distance that’s nearly pathological, the artists on New Anime Nation Vol. 10 never suggest that they dislike their own form. They never hide their own hooks behind a veil of recalcitrant artifice. They never make you feel guilty about enjoying their music.