In 2012, Grimes proclaimed that she was sick of her own voice. The self-made Canadian superstar confessed in an interview with Vulture, “I’m just so sick of my own voice at this point. I would love to engineer a pop star. Get some girl who’s great at singing; write all her music for her, put her clothes on her, make her perform. That would be really fun.” Grimes’ dreams of pop stardom seemed incongruous with the nature of her 2012 album Visions, which was lauded almost entirely for its ‘otherness,’ its inability to be categorized in any specific genre.
Fast forward three years to the release of Grimes’ most ambitious work, Art Angels (2015), and we see the result of Grimes’ grand fantasy. While it would be irresponsible and simply inaccurate to label Grimes’ work a distinctly pop album, Art Angels certainly abandons some of the atmospheric nonsense of Visions and Halfaxa (2010) and replaces it with more dynamic beats and recognizable progressions in a way that might be disconcerting to the die-hard alt fan base dedicated to her obscurity. It’s not a pop album, but it’s irresistible to call it one—if only watch fans that think they know her so well squirm with discomfort.
Labels aside, Art Angels is an exemplar not only of the strength of the voice Grimes might once have been sick of, but also the genius behind the soundboard. Art Angels is a production masterpiece, not leaving a single second on any track unscrupulously managed. “California” synthesizes electro-pop R&B with a country rodeo-rhythm that can’t help but be exceptionally catchy. “World Princess, Pt. II” uses 8-bit tones and K-pop fusions to yield a glittery, lush soundscape. Where Visions and Halfaxa lulled in seemingly deliberate obscurity, Art Angles capitalizes on its weird-factor by generating hits through genre-fucking of epic proportions.
“Pin” feels like the most traditional song on the album, incorporating guitar strums and chord progressions that coalesce in a verse-chorus structure. Nonetheless, the track manages to include distinct aspects of Grimes’ artistry, namely rich vocal layering and distortion. The song feels nearly operatic in the build to chorus; the beats begin to crescendo, as Grimes hums almost wistfully, “Falling off the edge with you / It was too good to be true.” The crash back down into a powerful chorus is the gratifying punch that always seemed to be missing in Grimes’ previous hits.
“Flesh without Blood,” the promotional single of the album, is the ultimate spunk track, telling the story of a tiresome relationship finally ending. A traditionally sad story isn’t able to bring down the upbeat nature of the album as a whole; Grimes dances circles around the poor significant other that dared to cross her: “I don’t see the light I saw in you before / and no I don’t care anymore.” Perhaps it’s the peppy beat and snappy synths rumbling underneath Grimes’ voice that enrapture us in her self-assurance—by the end of the song, we’re not let wallowing in her pity, because there simply isn’t any. The irony of the tune feels triumphant. “Just let me go,” she sings; not out of resignation, but rather from being fed-up and bored. She’s flat out done, and, by the end of the track, so are we.
In making a sonically dynamic album like Art Angels, hyper-meticulous artists like Grimes run the risk of overproduction. “REALiTi,” the first track to be released from the mysterious “~the lost album~” of 2013, makes a reappearance on Art Angels, replacing the ominous transcendence of its antecedent with a more streamlined, self-conscious song that assumes its rightful place in the album. While the song feels woefully overworked compared to the original, the hastened BPM and higher register of Grimes voice on the track make it just different enough to justify its overhaul, and just similar enough to merit it the same title as the original.
Ultimately, the true feat of Art Angels is that it is infinitely more accessible than Grimes’ earlier work without sacrificing any originality or bravado. This album is not a sellout—it’s a reinvention. Art Angels is a reminder that it would be a futile and meaningless pursuit to categorize Grimes as a pop star, or as any type of star. She will resist categorization not out of stubbornness, but simply because her style is too eclectic to fit nicely into any one bound.
Art Angels is simultaneously an album of defiance and experimentation. If you thought you knew Grimes just from listening to Halfaxa and Visions, you couldn’t be more misinformed. Even listening to Art Angels falls short of painting the whole picture. Grimes intentionally keeps us guessing, and it must be that inability to pin her down that holds her fan base together. Being formulaic would be tiresome, and Grimes knows it. That’s what makes Grimes the perfect engineer, the one who could actually successfully construct a pop star from scratch and operate from behind the scenes. This would be a small feat for someone who manages her own image with such decisive calculus.
So, dedicated fans can rest easy: Grimes is not a pop star. However, even dedicated fans tuned in nervously to stream the album upon its initial release. They didn’t know what to expect, and neither did anyone else. No one is certain of who Grimes really is. Maybe, that’s right where she wants us.