There’s a moment on Grimes’ fantastic(al) new album Visions, about halfway through “The Colour of Moonlight” — just after the ‘chorus,’ for which Claire Boucher has swapped her flatly hooky ‘verse’ for an even-steadier one-note melody, as if she were walking some sort of tonal tightrope — when the tension splinters into a multitude of particulate voices. Steeped in traditions of R&B and emotional exorcism though she may be, and extraordinarily talented vocalist though she assuredly is, Boucher’s recorded selves eschew the spotlight: the more they project and the more they plead, the smaller they become.
By now, we’ve already at least subconsciously noted this trend, especially in the sub-two-minute Ed Banger dollhouse of “Eight.” It’s just one way Boucher uses the trendy to paradoxical ends: pitch-shift has never (“Why Don’t You Call Me” excepted) sounded so much like actual tininess, like the actual shrinking of vocal chords in response to want. Yeah, reverb and all that, we get that the world is this huge uncaring place whose abysses are to be shouted into, but this isn’t just the sound of the largeness of the world surrounding pop microcosms: this is the actual visceral experience of one person’s diminution. We, the listeners, are part of the uncaring city/scapes that rise around her.
Part of the reason that Visions comes off as an ‘important’ album, despite in some ways converging on plenty of RIYL baggage and the selfsimilar black hole of pop itself, is that it’s constructed using different tools. Like, other TMT staffers made the connection to late Gang Gang Dance, which I can see, but no way is Grimes so hamfistedly “everything time”; no way is Grimes inviting you to that sort of globalized, post-cultural rave. I think, instead, of Burial, and all the untapped potential of what I guess dubstep used to be — vocal grotesques as a means to confront the impenetrably dark, lonely space between people. Grimes seems to be taking those expansive and unfurled tropes of examination-worthy acts like Burial and Grouper (think of those hypnotic clusters that emerge in the latter when all instincts are indulged simultaneously) and re(-)coiling them into something that resembles pop music but is also consistently unique and fascinating.
The shorthand is that if we have trouble getting behind an artist ‘selling out’ or indulging pop as flagrantly as Boucher does here, it’s because said indulgences rarely end up sharpening the contrast between the artist and the surrounding cultural landscape. Grimes’ first two albums winked in Visions’ direction but felt so enmeshed in DIY outsider art (her own shroomy Day-of-the-Dead cover art getting less and less accurate to her music) that their eccentricities were a little mushy or ill-defined by comparison. Another TMTer mentioned Maria Minerva, which seemed off to me at first, but then I started to hear how this could be the sort of acuity that exists inside Minerva’s head when she shimmies over some canned beat. The MJ-nodding bassline transposed to a midi keyboard octave in “Vowels=Space and Time” stands alone, sexy-because-affectless, and, like so much else on the album, ridiculous in a way that doesn’t derail the groove. Or, an even better example, that appliance-like hum in the middle of “Oblivion,” jamming out as if it weren’t at some oblique angle to the key of the song. It’s a rare, giddying thing to hear such blatant DIY accidentals over a high-fructose 4/4 electro whomp.
To some extent, it’s the audacity of Grimes’ presentation that sets her apart from likeminded contemporaries Fever Ray or, christ, I dunno, Glasser or whatever. The first track and so-called ‘intro’ “Infinite [Heart] Without Fulfillment” is actually a no-second-wasted strangle of chopped-up vocals designed to blast the hinges off of expectations for, in equal measure, either a homemade/experimental album or a strobing Top 40 contender. You’d think that by trying to do both, she’d fail at both, right? Yet the entire first third of the album is rife with such mind-boggling earworms, and if there’s any complaint to be leveled at Visions, it’s that it thereafter grows the slightest bit more complacent, the slightest bit less this-is-the-future-gnarly, as if her core vocal-whirlpool-dosing-on-sequencers aesthetic were fresh enough to bear repeating (it is).
But it’s worth examining why we might still not want Boucher to break her stride. It has to do with a uniquely 21st-century suspension of disbelief that comes more easily on Visions than on previous albums (one that, perhaps, her live show continues to burst). Like the blurry want-shapes of Burial or Grouper, Boucher’s words don’t typically demand to be heard — “see you on a dark night” is at most phantasmagorical, nocturnal, but certainly no invitation — so it can cramp up the ears to repeatedly miss her plain(tive) request on the longish “Skin.” The stakes of said request? “So I know I can be human once again.”
It’s a vulnerable, and melodically shy, sexual invitation — wiped mascara, hands folded neatly. No one knows if she can be human once again; we’ve enlisted Boucher, we had believed, to help us forget that. To be human; to be familiar; to be unadorned: if a kernel like that signals weakness, it’s weakness carefully-chosen and -cultivated, and on an album whose fabric is constantly bending around fears, uncertainties, and desires, its nakedness is as close to a spotlight and a promise of humanity as Boucher will get. For our part, now that she’s asking something of us, we feel we’ve been spoiled. And we have, absolutely — recall how our not caring has been taken as physical law on this album; recall the IV-drip of all we have dosed upon. Her intent is to get everyone sucked in before naysayers have a chance to WTF. Yet her humanness has been bleeding through the prints from the beginning. Yeah, she’s planted shit that can and will grow in the future, but make no mistake: we need pop music that sounds like this right now, because no one else seems quite so capable of confronting the tangle of expectations (or lack of expectations) in the post-capitalist music terrain; no one zeroes in on the tricky politics of cultural intercourse quite so graphically.