There are many things you could say about Claire Boucher. Better known as the multitalented singer, songwriter, producer, and visual artist behind Grimes, Boucher has provoked a fair share of talk since her rise to indie stardom in 2012. Her acclaimed album Visions brought with it a harsh media spotlight, examining everything from her Tumblr posts to where she donates her money to her past drug usage and more. Given the nature of her fame—like so many of today’s artists, being largely a product of the internet and social media—this sort of attention should hardly be surprising.
It is understandable, however, that a young artist like Boucher would find this level of scrutiny frustrating, especially when it distracts from her work. She has railed against her portrayal in the media on several occasions, through unfiltered rants that would make any PR manager cringe. Yet rather than turn people off to her music, Boucher’s fan base seems to have only grown larger. Add to this her refusal to conform or keep silent about the music industry’s blatant sexism, and she’s become even more of a hero in today’s increasingly fed up culture.
Lately, her critics seem most focused on whether she’s abandoning her roots for mainstream success. Following the release of two songs—one a rejected track originally penned for Rihanna, the other a poppy collaboration featured on HBO’s Girls—many questioned if Grimes meant to leave the underground indie scene for broader, more commercial pastures. Some even speculated that backlash over the Rihanna track was the reason Boucher scrapped an entire album worth of songs last September.While this later turned out to be false, there’s nonetheless a very obvious problem with this type of thinking. It requires that Boucher stick to the script, play by the rules, and not rock the boat—despite every indication that she will do just the opposite. And, to a large extent, she continues this trend with her fourth full-length LP, Art Angels.
As an album populated by diss tracks and kick-ass feminism, Art Angels blatantly ignores the pressures of the media, the industry, and her audience with one massive IDGAF. Oddly enough, Boucher accomplishes this with a string of pop tunes that wouldn’t be out of place on a Top 40 chart. This shouldn’t come as too much of a shock—first of all, behind all those shrouded vocals and haunting melodies have always been catchy pop songs. And secondly, given that some of Boucher’s favorite songs are by artists like Niki Manaj, Paramore, Taylor Swift, and Mariah Carey, it only makes sense that these influences would reveal themselves in due time.
For some fans, this will no doubt be jarring. Yet in true Grimes fashion, the album saves plenty of room for weirdness. Case in point: a country-influenced ode to California is followed by a scream-filled track featuring Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes. Later down the road there’s a bass-thumping EDM tribute followed by an acoustic slow-burner. If there’s one word for this album, it’s eclectic. Yes, it’s more “mainstream” than previous efforts, but only as much as an album boasting a bloodied, three-eyed alien child on the cover can be. It’s still a pop album at its core—it’s just a pop album from another dimension.That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a perfect pop album, or even a great one. Not every song is a home run, and you’ll probably find yourself skipping around here and there. Neither is it a natural progression from her previous work—in many cases, it’s a significant leap. We might always wonder what became of Boucher’s scrapped album, or what Art Angels would sound like if Visions hadn’t thrust her into the spotlight.
That said, the album is nonetheless a bold and highly enjoyable effort, especially for those who have grown weary of pop’s heavy-trodden status quo. Art Angels provides enough of a twist that indie purists will find themselves only mildly upset—and even then, not for long. And none of this is to say the Grimes of old is gone completely. There are plenty of moments on the album that resemble her previous material—“laughing and not being normal” and “Realiti” are both great examples of this. Mostly, however, the renegade spirit of Boucher’s older work remains, while the formula gets toyed with quite a bit.
So if you expected Grimes to play it safe, expect to be disappointed. As Boucher sings in the album closer, “If you’re looking for a dream girl / I’ll never be your dream girl.” The result, though a little uneven in areas, is nonetheless one most unique and daring albums of this year.