by Elena Gritzan
A lot has been said about Claire Boucher’s avant-garde/pop mash-up project Grimes in the past year. She is exactly the spirit of the times: she supports and encourages the free spread of music, snips together genres and influences in her computer-based production and recently rose to fame on the back of Tumblr and the internet on whole. She creates an immensely unique sound, but also resonates with a wide variety of people (just look at how many youtube views she has, or how wild the crowds get at her live shows, or her performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon this week). But, of course, the Polaris is not about any of that – only the recording can be assessed with regards to its “artistic merit”. Fortunately, Grimes’ record warrants the cultural hype surrounding her.
One of the problems with the Polaris is that everyone has a different definition of what “artistic merit” means. Let me explain the definition I am working with: for an album to have high artistic merit, it needs to be creating something original, taking established conventions and turning them on their head. Sure, technical musical ability and a talent for melody are great, but that is where the merits of much of the short list end. It takes a lot more than that to make a fascinating artistic achievement. It takes the combination of unexpected elements, unusual production and a high level of creativity.
Despite all of the recent rhetoric surrounding her rising public profile, Grimes did not come out of nowhere. Her previous two albums cultivated her gothic ambient aesthetic and honed her ear for production. What sets Visions apart is a new approach to song structure and vocals: AM pop-diva melodies and Mariah Carey-like yelps, all looped and layered and falsetto-ed to perfection. Boucher has wedded creative, experimental laptop creations with the transformative power of a pop song, and that combination of influences is what gives this record such a fresh and focused perspective.
Grimes covers wide ranges, from technological cyborg vocals on “Eight” to extreme vulnerability and fear on “Skin”, and from introspective down-tempo “Symphonia IX” to the rave-inducing “Be a Body”. The whole record plays with contrast. The ubiquitous “Oblivion” oozes with an infectious warbly synth hook, but the lyrics are often indecipherable. Her sound has a haphazard art school aesthetic, yet is simultaneously polished with the posturing of a pop star. She is lyrically uncertain and vulnerable, but the record is the sound of an artist growing to the point of powerful cultural and taste-making potential.
Visions is executed with confidence and a strong point of view – this makes the album a compelling listen, but also an important piece of work. An outsider’s perspective keeps her writing songs that challenge your ears and notions of genre boundaries, while still serving as dance music that takes you outside of yourself. Visions straddles the visceral desire for movement and memorable melodies, and intellectual desire for something well-crafted, different, and frankly more interesting than anything else this country has put out in the past year. This is exactly the kind of record that the Polaris should be rewarding.