Grimes – Visions

Grimes is too good to be true: she’s the hottest young auteur from the hottest scene in North America, and with the release of her first full-length release (well, the first that was actually recorded and released with the world outside of Montreal in mind) Visions, success appears to be a foregone conclusion. Which begs the question: does it even matter if Visions is any good?

Well, if it were good it would be a bonus, but what it really needs is to be effective. On this count, Visions delivers. 23 year-old Claire Boucher, the auteur in question, offers a surface-level novelty that disguises the fundamental orthodoxy of her music, a hooky, ear-candy-ish mix of beats, synths and right-up-there, sing-song vocals.

Not that there’s anything wrong with orthodoxy, mind. It’s just that taking the most palatable aesthetic elements of Montreal’s DIY scene and tying it in a ribbon is opportunistic at best, and fraudulent at worst. Yes, she dabbles in a host of genres (including ‘witch house’ and k-pop), but it’s all basically pop. Yes, she’s schooled in gender theory and her look is a bit left of centre, but she’s still unproblematically feminine. Yes, she’s read the modernist poetry of Anna Akhmatova, but her lyrics aren’t too hard to follow.

She’s a perfect storm of indie chin-stroker signifiers, and yet she makes pop music. Is it supposed to be subversive? Ironic? Or have the sonic boundaries between the mainstream and the ‘underground’ eroded so completely that only budget constraints distinguish the Grimeses of this world from the Gagas? Of course, there’s more to it than image management, but to pretend that all that stuff doesn’t matter is childish, and misunderstands the empty, sequinned heart of pop.

So what of the music, anyway? Well, it’s actually pretty darn good. Analogue synth bass is the key element, powering songs like Genesis and Oblivion, while allowing Boucher plenty of space to layer her feathery, ingénue voice over the top, melody upon counter melody. This sort of attention to detail makes repeat listens a real treat, but nonetheless moments like this present Grimes as a strong producer with a distinct aesthetic, but little more. Songs like Circumambient, though, take the dancefloor-ready template of the above and cram it with bells, whistles and glitches: unstable sonic elements that threaten to crowd out Boucher’s hooks. It is enough to render the well-trodden terrain of electro-pop strange, even thrilling again.

The real trick, though, is the one that Boucher pulls with the very next track, Vowels = Space and Time. A schmaltzy, Madonna-esque pop number, makes you wonder if dizzying, angle-grinding Circumambient ever happened. This is typical of Grimes’ skilful manipulation of the listener’s expectations, her ability to create a compelling, ever-shifting listening experience, full of challenges and rewards. Visions is a fun, intelligent and nuanced album that moves the dialogue of pop music forward a step, and that is no small thing.