Claire Boucher has an affinity for in-between spaces. When describing her inspiration for a series of Mesoamerican and manga-inspired drawings she created as an art student at Montreal’s McGill University, she talked about existing outside the realm of ordinary confines. “I like creating a feeling of an intense void. Of being not in a place.” It’s fitting that one of her drawings adorns the cover of Visions, 23-year old Boucher’s fourth musical release in two years under her nom de guerre, Grimes. The singer’s synth-driven avant-pop possesses both an odd ghostliness and a powerful presence, a sense of occupying multiple creative spaces at once yet existing firmly in its own weird world.
Grimes’ exploration of futuristic pop realms has progressed rapidly from her murky experiments on 2010 debut Geidi Primes to the sharper, more luminous songs on the same year’s Halfaxa and the 2011 EP split Darkbloom. It all comes to new dazzling heights on Visions, an album that manages to sound brighter and more crystalline even as it plunges to greater depths. Boucher recorded Visions during a self-imposed three week period of deprivation from both sleep and natural light, and it mirrors her altered state. It establishes Grimes as a musician of extraordinary creative heft, a singer of remarkable nuance and range, and a force to be reckoned with at the unpredictable intersection of pop, dance, electronic, and indie music.
Grimes immediately embraces traditional pop forms on the album’s first two singles, “Genesis” and “Oblivion” — though they still sound like they’re from outer space, they’re easily the most radio-friendly (and best) things she’s ever committed to record. “Genesis” injects warm inky jets of bass into a bed of angelic piano and strings as Boucher coos “Everything, everything, everything” over the album’s catchiest melody. During her tales of night time revelry on “Oblivion,” Boucher buries the delicious hook from Tommy and the Shondell’s pop classic “I Think We’re Alone Now” in an ocean of slinky, throbbing synths as she whispers “Coming up behind you/Always coming/And you never have a clue.” It’s an insidiously clever juxtaposition of the nocturnal creepiness with sunshine pop and a wonderful appropriation of something old into new.
Aside from these two fantastic songs, the thing that strikes you most about Visions is how good the album sounds. The production is well-spaced and intricately textured but stops short of being overly lavish. Grimes brings synthesizers by the truckload (wispy, buzzed, chiming, gurgling, and floor-shaking) and relies heavily on the intermingling of those electronic sounds with her impressive voice. Boucher exhibits an astonishing four octave range (she admits to practicing to Mariah Carey songs) but prefers to unveil it with restraint, gently peppering songs like “Skin” and “Circumambient” with the occasional jaw-dropping vocal run into the stratosphere. As a singer, she admits to focusing less on the enunciation of her words than the sound of the syllables, lending her vocals a ghostly halo and adding to the music’s not unpleasant feeling of amorphous detachment.
Grimes indulges in aural experimentation and eclectic song structures throughout Visions’ radical middle third, with the electro stomp of “Eight,” the Knife-like haunted house of “Visiting Statue,” and cyborg R&B jam turned tribal trance thumper “Be a Body.” It’s a jarring hodge-podge of styles, but the sheer breadth of sounds and ideas makes Visions a sonic horn of plenty — it recalls the glorious heyday of Basement Jaxx, not just in terms of its genre-busting maximalism but it’s blending of disparate dance styles into something unexpectedly smart. There’s naked, muscular synths driving these songs like the kind you’d find in early New Order singles or NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine, and in terms of vocal influences, Grimes is a combination of fearless sensuality of late-90’s Bjork, the sharp pop sensibilities of Robyn, and the sheer ethereality of Cocteau Twins’s Elisabeth Frasier.
As impressive as opening tracks “Genesis” and “Oblivion” are, Boucher’s excellence as a pop songwriter is likely cemented by Visions‘ back end. “Symphonia IX (my wait is for u)” is a gorgeously forlorn love song that balances chunky Orbital-esque synth pulses and delicate piano together like thunder and raindrops. The eerie, frantic backwards singing and bank of warning sirens that inhabit “Nightmusic” bring a magnificent sense of dread. An emptiness permeates “Skin” as Boucher admits to a lover “I hate that you’re leaving/ You act like nothing ever happened/But it meant the world to me.” Each of these final tracks have hummable melodies and hooks as compelling as any song you’ll hear on the radio. But they’re cloaked in a curtain of darkness, a reflection of Boucher’s inescapable love for the void.
At its core, pop music is an expression of feeling through sound that has popular appeal, but Visions shows those feelings don’t have to be simple, mindless ones. The album’s melodic directness actually augments the complexity of the emotions underneath. Musically, Grimes’ songs do things pop music doesn’t ordinarily do — switch chords unexpectedly, eschew choruses completely, start with 2-step garage rhythms then turn into four-on-the-floor stompers. Visions is a pop record that shows what pop music can truly be when pushed past convention — intelligent, conflicted, sexy and endlessly listenable.
As a visual artist, Boucher laments that her generation creates “meaningless art” with no purpose. “I hate to contribute to that. But I guess I do” she offers, sounding painfully self-aware. As a musician, she need not worry. Visions is made meaningful by Grimes’ youthful energy and her realization that although all art is derivative, each artist’s experience remains genuine. You get the feeling she can sense the exponentially increasing mountain of pop music influences piling up behind her, making it nearly impossible to express herself with originality. But perhaps the very burden of that stack is what has driven Grimes to record Visions in isolation and create something so airy, wide open to possibility and compellingly her own. She calls her style “post-internet,” but right now it feels “post-everything-out-there” which is a pretty cool place to be. It’s the sound of a true artist coming into her own.