Visions of pop music’s past – and a glimpse of its future
“Not knowing how to play music is my greatest asset,” Vancouverite Claire Boucher, aka [a]Grimes[/a], told an interviewer a couple of years back. “I try to imitate things, and then I fail horribly, and then it’s just… something different.”
It’s this informal approach, this spirit of unlearning, that’s key to the “something different” which defines ‘Visions’. Instead of traversing the familiar catacombs of ripped-off riffs, photocopied vocal styles and reverent retracing of footsteps that make up most of the landscape of modern rock, ‘Visions’ drips with instinct, an eerie sixth sense, a stream-of-consciousness mental state. And as you listen, you realise just how precious few pop stars are trading in music that can really express and articulate this unusual psychological place.
On this – Grimes’ third solo album, her first for 4AD – Boucher fills every millisecond with the sound of an internal war. ‘Visions’ isn’t about centres, it’s about the sound of the spaces in between. She may still inhabit her childhood bedroom in her parents’ Vancouver home, making music at night or behind blacked-out windows, but don’t cast Boucher in that ‘madwoman in the attic’ role. She’s not playing up to a flame-haired witchy aesthetic that’s somehow all surface. Nor is she out to deconstruct slickly choreographed sexuality, à la Gaga. She’s going deeper than that.
Similarly, in musical terms, ‘Visions’ goes beyond electropop. Melody isn’t king here. Instead, tunes flap and flit in the wind, sunny and sinister, like a grinning Jolly Roger run up a mast. Although a reluctant pop star – she told NME she would rather be a Timbaland-style producer than the girl on the mic – Boucher is blessed with the ability to shape-shift from Mariah Carey-like five-octave warbler to growly doom-monger in the blink of an eye. Everything is soaked in Burial-like hiss and chatter, from which sharp keyboard lines occasionally snap like an angry crocodile. It’s too carefree to fit the post-electroclash bracket, too instinctual for the studied gloom of the cold-wave brigade, and far too urgent, too present, to have anything whatsoever to do with chillwave. Some have labelled Grimes as ‘ethereal pop’, which makes us think of bloody Enya. Besides, they’re wrong; it’s not that gossamer-thin, either.
Rather, Grimes’ pop sensibility is like a distorted mirror, reflecting back Top 40 hits from years gone by, but through a haze, like thick fog or TV static. Listening to all 13 tracks in a single sitting is like leafing through a series of disconnected fragments, or swinging back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness. It’s like skipping through a thousand excellent tracks on your iPod shuffle and isolating 13 perfect moments. “Oh baby, I can’t say that everything is OK/’Cos I have a problem, and I don’t know how to solve them”, she sings on ‘Circumambient’. Not only is this a rare instance of Boucher delivering an audible, unfiltered vocal, it’s also as if she’s summing up the entire modus operandi of ‘Visions’.
This feel of hyperreality, a glowing, ADD-ish nowness, feels like a shocking glimpse of the future, of the sort we haven’t really experienced since Crystal Castles’ debut. Like much truly modernist pop, though, listen for long enough and you hear delicious echoes of past guilty pleasures. The rave horns of ‘Be A Body’ tick like Olive’s ‘You’re Not Alone’. The first half of ‘Nightmusic’ could be a dodgy cassette player churning out Kylie’s ‘Rhythm Of Love’. Snatches of ‘Skin’ have the pulsing drama of ‘Blue Lines’-era Massive Attack. But when Grimes pours her dissonant fuckery over these songs, they take you somewhere unexpected, for that wonderful “something different”.