Grimes • Art Angels • 4AD • Release Date: 11.6.15
Sometimes the measure of a great album is one that makes you ask (or exclaim), “WTF is going on!” That’s sort of the case with Grimes’ Art Angels, an album that made numerous Best of 2015 year-end lists, including landing seventh on the Metacritic list compiled by highest aggregate score. Being bombarded with albums in the fourth quarter as a music critic/journalist, missing an album – particularly one that isn’t mainstream – is easy to do. However, after hearing all the buzz surrounding Art Angels, and the fact that it made so many year-end lists and missed mine, I had to check it out.
As aforementioned, Art Angels is confusing, yet brilliant (confusingly brilliant!). While it doesn’t threaten Kendrick Lamar for top honors as the album to beat, it’s definitely captivating and ranks among the best albums of 2015. This is a perfect example where being nonconformist and abandoning tried-and-true script are beneficial.
“Laughing And Not Being Normal” is the first indication that Art Angels is some kind of trip – perhaps a hellish one. The music is intense and foreboding. When the vocals enter in, they are ghostly, in Grimes’ upper register. Once they exit, the music again has this creepy, off-kilter vibe.
Thankfully, “California” is brighter musically, though the major-key and pessimistic lyrics seem oxymoronic. The hook is a perfect example of this: “California / you only like me when you think I’m looking sad / California / I didn’t think you’d end up treating me so bad.” BTW, it’s totally NOT about Cali.
The trip continues on arguably the album’s biggest WTF – make that WTFF moment – “Scream.” “Scream” features Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, who raps in Mandarin Chinese. Somehow, this odd song has a hypnotic effect and is among the crème de la crème. Go figure.
Even with the great enigmatic nature of “Scream,” it’s great to hear English once more on “Flesh Without Blood” which also is more ‘down to earth.’ Keep in mind that down to earth in reference to Grimes is a slightly different down to earth compared to everybody else. “Flesh Without Blood” will still leave you confused.
“Belly of the Beat” continues the endearing quality that Art Angels has despite being so different. “Belly of the Beat” has this vibe about it that sucks the listener in, even when the lyrics are heard more as breathy sounds as opposed to distinctive lyrics. The ambience is equally important as the lyrics in effect.
“Kill V. Maim” is among the most ambitious, manic songs from Art Angels, evidenced by the changing inflections and sounds of Grimes’ voice. The pre-chorus and chorus are the highlight: “B-E-H-A-V-E / arrest us / Italiana mobster / looking so precious…I don’t behave, I don’t behave.”
“Artangels” is brighter than “Kill V. Maim,” established in a major key and featuring optimistic lyrics in reference to Montréal, Canada: “Oh Montréal don’t break my heart / I think I love you.” Interestingly, Grimes’ least favorite song from Art Angels is “Easily,” which to the listener’s ears might be the most accessible. “Easily” has a dash of urban flair going for it – probably attributable to the fact this song depicts an ended relationship. “Easily, I’m the sweetest damn thing you ever saw,” Grimes sings on the catchy chorus, continuing, “Easily, suddenly, you don’t know me at all / easily, three years later and now you wanna call.”
“Pin” is busy, characterized by its driving rhythm and loud dynamic level. “REALiti” is as groovy as everything else, so much so that it’s danceable. The demo version appears at the end of Art Angels (physical CD only). “World Princess, Pt. II” serves as follow up to “World Princess,” a track appearing on her 2010 album, Halfaxa. How does it stack up? A-OK!
“Venus Fly” is the final record of Art Angels that ranks among the ‘best of the best.’ Featuring fellow eclectic artist Janelle Monáe, it’s nothing short of a fascinating listen with swagger and fierceness galore. The chorus ‘takes the cake’: “Hey, what about me? / Oh, why you looking at me?” Grimes’ voice is breathy, yet splendid on the brief “Life in the Vivid Dream.” Depending on the version of the album “Butterfly” serves as the penultimate or closing track.
All in all, Art Angels easily ranks among the best albums of 2015. Yeah, maybe it incites a “WTF” reaction upon its first couple of listens, but the more times one spins it, the more magical it is. Grimes has truly assembled a terrific album by all means.
Favorites: “California,” “Scream,” “Flesh Without Blood,” “Belly of the Beat” and “Venus Fly”