Album of the Week: Grimes, 'Art Angels'


Grimes, 'Art Angels'
Grimes, 'Art Angels' (4AD Records)

Grimes's Art Angels will almost certainly go down as one of the most boundary-pushing Albums of the Week we've ever featured at The Current; at the same time, many music fans may find themselves alienated by Grimes's apparent evolution towards a Top 40-esque sound. Somewhere in between lies one of the strongest, strangest and best albums of recent years.

Consider the one-two-three punch that opens the album. There's a spooky, avant-garde intro, self-consciously titled "laughing and not being normal"; it's followed by "California," a song so overtly chipper, I saw one Bay Area writer propose its inclusion on a workplace playlist paying tribute to the Golden State. Of course, it's a sarcastic ode to the music industry, but unless one is paying close attention, it could be easy to mistake it for any traditional Top-40 tune. It's followed by "SCREAM," performed entirely in Mandarin by Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, and fittingly punctuated by convincingly horrifying screams.

The opening feint is a daring — and risky — move. It's as if Grimes is treating the first three songs like a challenge out of a myth: If you pass this three-pronged test, you are worthy to take in the treasures that follow. From the opening suite, the album enters what amounts to the main set: a 36-minute stretch of adrenaline, tenderness, thoughtfulness, venom and beauty, all presented with a sense of energy and intensity that recalls the extended chase scenes of Max Max: Fury Road. Choosing favorite moments is akin to choosing favorite individual Fury Road stunts: the volume and intensity keeps a breakneck pace, with spare spots of relaxation and breathing room. It's an electrifying, exhilarating ride.

As the album winds down, there's a brief interlude called "Life in the Vivid Dream," a record Grimes herself has called "sort of a sad song," serving as a sort of curtain call before the closer "Butterfly," ending with the words "If you're looking for a dream girl / I'll never be your dream girl." This is ironic, of course, as the previous 50 minutes of music should have fully fulfilled the dreams of any discerning music listener.

I recently watched the documentary Room 237, which dives into various theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. One pundit speaks at length about the nature of dreams — how they are the brain's way of synthesizing the vast amount of information from the world into a condensed form — and how The Shining is Kubrick's attempt to condense human history into a single, dreamlike feature film. This theory came to mind as I tried to summarize the specific reasons why Art Angels resonates with me so, and I came to realize that the same logic could easily apply here. Grimes has constructed an intricate, vibrant text that would serve as a vital release even if it were entirely instrumental (similarly, critics have noted how Max Max: Fury Road would be equally striking if it were silent and/or black-and-white).

The subtexts of Art Angels are not as overt, but they reflect our own, tumultuous culture as if in a vividly-rendered dream. From uniquely 21st-century issues like global warming, gun violence and online harassment, to problems that have plagued humankind for millennia, such as death, androcentrism and the role of art in society — it's all here, spelled out more clearly in some places than others, but a fittingly uneasy encapsulation of life in the world. It's no wonder that at one point, Grimes sings, in a deceivingly nonchalant way, "I've been thinking … I could leave the world today."

Art Angels is a monolithic triumph of writing, performance, production, and engineering — all of which, of course, were done by Grimes alone (with the sole exception of the guest vocal performances by Aristophanes on "Scream" and Janelle Monae on "Venus Fly"). It sublimely reflects the world in which it was constructed, and is as catchy as any mainstream recording. It is a monumental accomplishment. It is art.

Audience ratings for this album

Among The Current's listeners who submitted a rating for this album, 84 percent gave the album 5 out of 5 stars. Poll closed at 12 noon on Friday, Jan. 29.

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