When Alice Cooper started sacrificing virgins at the altar of mediocrity during the early seventies, the English cried ‘for shame!’ having seen it all before in Screaming Lord Sutch. Such is the stranglehold pop culture history has on those that previously lived it, that any thing which appears novel is treated with an air of skepticism by the pious vanguard who insist their day was the day when people knew how to live. All music is derivative though. And as any conversation with a secondary school teacher will tell you, every September a new cohort of confused and sticky teenagers shuffles into the classroom vaguely resembling the last. There’s the popular girl, the buffoon boy, the shy kid, the bookworm etc, history always finds a way of throwing the same characters onto its stage.
Enter Claire Boucher, ‘the human tumblr’ as Pitchfork called her in 2012. Noisey says of her more recently that she ‘probably had a DeviantArt account’. All these things are presumptuous and reductive, but they provide us with an interesting glimpse into how we see Boucher and her Grimes project. Boucher was, by her own account, the girl who used to sit in class drawing. Evidently, she was the girl who loved Studio Ghibli films and ballet. It’s been interesting to see the discussions that have risen around Art Angels, her second LP for 4AD. She has been repeatedly called a female ‘auteur’ – a messy word in this case because of its connotations of filmmaking and the French critical mode, a tradition which means fairly little to her music.
The truth is that Boucher, as she chooses to present herself is complex and protean. On 2012’s breakout LP Visions she was Trent Reznor, plunging herself into dark, wired and sleepless places to come out with something dark, wired and sleepless. For all it’s successes, it was also in some respects a failure. The GarageBand production wasn’t quite there yet. It was good for high fidelity sound systems, but once listened to through headphones it wore thin quickly. Her lack of confidence in her lyrics led her to deliberately obscure them in the mix, and it was resolutely lacking in any texture that wasn’t synthetic.
But for all its failures the songs remained unassailable. Grimes became an influence, and one that was easy to crib from. With Art Angels there’s a sense that she’s pushed her skill set so mesmerisingly high, learning guitar, drums, ukulele and violin along the way, that to copy her now is to become a better musician, and once you’ve pulled yourself up to that kind of height, what’s the point in catting things wholesale anymore?
They say you should never judge a record by its cover, but when that record is from an artist who so meticulously stage manages her presentation that she draws the cover herself, it’s as good a place as any to start. The cover is stunning and fully indicative of the joy and colour within. The first song ‘laughing and not being normal’ has a similar choral quality to ‘Nightmusic’ from Visions. Both of them sound like the medieval compositions of Thomas Tallis, a composer who Grimes no doubt studied, having waxed lyrical before on the profundity of medieval music and its open dialogue with god.
From then on, her pace, consistency and bravery is relentless. She rails against the people who put her in a box on ‘California’: “the things they see in me I cannot see myself / When you get bored of me I’ll be back on the shelf” she explains before plunging into a till-death-do-us-part marriage with her adoptive home: “and when the ocean rises up above the ground / Baby I’ll drown in California”. When Boucher spoke to Dazed earlier this year, the gist of it was that this would be her Gaia worshipping album. It’s not clear how much has changed since then, but with the addition of organic instruments fleshing out the textures, this really is her folky earth album.
Elsewhere her production is so on point it’s ridiculous. The sidechaining and automation are spotless. It’s easy to get lost in her kick drums on ‘Butterfly’ for instance. The two central songs ‘Artangels’ and ‘Easily’ tap into that turn of the millennium feeling so powerfully defined by All Saints’ ‘Pure Shores’ and Madonna’s Ray Of Light LP. This year’s discarded demo ‘Realiti’ has been rehashed in studio to give it a propulsive quality that encapsulates the onward motion of life as she sings with beautiful simplicity: “Every morning there are mountains to climb, taking all my time / Oh when I get up this is what I see / Welcome to reality.” The two baddest songs on the album, ‘Kill V. Maim’ and ‘Venus Fly’ will surely whip up a storm in her show. The former is a K-Pop inspired assault on the senses, bound to leave concertgoers catatonic in bed with an acute case of what-the-fuck for weeks to come, while the latter is a Janelle Monáe collaboration that is All About The Bass.
Basically, Boucher has made a perfect album. This is one of the best albums you’re ever likely to hear. If pop music, like the classroom, is a constant cycle of repetition, then Boucher is the one who comes along and reinvents the wheel. She’s the little girl in the corner who spends her time drawing – the one with strange and esoteric passions, a lovable oddity. That little girl grew up. She had to grow up eventually. But she never stopped drawing. She never stopped expressing herself.
Buy: Grimes – Art Angels