Grimes: Visions

02/15/2012 4:00 AM |

(4AD/Arbutus Records)

The ease of laptop recording and the one-click broadcast opportunities of the internet have shaped an era where artists often get heard before they’ve really developed a voice. It’s the story behind most every hype-bubble we’ve heard pop in the last decade. So considering Clare Boucher, the 23-year-old Canadian pop artist known as Grimes, who turned interest in a couple of lo-fi sketchbook albums into a 4AD deal, this might easily have gone wrong. It mostly didn’t. In interviews, Boucher refers to her third album, Visions, as her real debut, the first time she’s made music as she wished rather than the best Garage Band could muster. Insane pop overload is Boucher’s one true love, apparently. High-pitched Asian pop hits, girl group harmony, the anonymous R&B inflections of early 90s club divas, obscure and obscured voices of 80s post-punk vocalists—they all work their way into Grimes’ personal mix. She often stacks them dizzyingly, two or three styles simultaneously pushing. We might never hear something as casually understated as Geidi Prime’s “Rosa” from her ever again.

Standout single “Oblivion” sounds like disparate strains of pop-chart cheese melting into some otherworldly sandwich. Within its four minutes, her shifting vocal phrasing recalls both Dell Shannon’s 60s smash “Runaway” and Tiffany’s 80s version of “I Think We’re Alone Now.” (Both or neither reference might be intentional, it’s super hard to tell.) Also buried in the mix are pulsing “orchestra hits,” maybe the single dorkiest pre-set keyboard sound possible. This is clearly not a young woman worried about some previous generation’s notion of cool. Given those building blocks, it’s kind of crazy how well she pulls it off.

But despite compelling manic energy and a solid success ratio, there’s something off about Visions (and moreso than sonically intended). Her layers sometimes feel like hedged bets, their swell of sound concealing romantic passivity. Thick, crunching percussion on “Circumambient” moves toward the dance floor, but the high, blurred vocals refuse to make eye-contact. Losing yourself in physical motion is a present theme in her work (the title phrase of “Be a Body” repeats over deep synths and thudding beats). She hasn’t quite mastered dance-pop’s “I have no choice but to dance!” urgency, despite her obvious affection for the genre.

The record’s emotional content is slightly unsatisfying, also. Deciphered from her odd, lispy teenage robot timbre, the lyrics seem to be predominantly about wanting, longing, not being in control. “Symphonia IX (my wait is u)” sighs, “Oh, I would say yes,” not considering she might do the asking. “Skin,” a long, impressively sensual track with a hypnotically minimal middle section, still hangs its feeling on a lyric like, “You act like nothing ever happened, but it meant the world to me.” It’s a bummer that a young, vibrant, would-be pop star character like hers should be invested in unresponsive jerks. Sure, that’s a very familiar sentiment in the vast pop music history Visions wants to celebrate all at once. The skilled sonic scavenger might have left it on the curb.

Photo John Londono

Photo Raphaël Ouellet