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Why Grimes' 'Art Angels' Is One of Our Generation's Greatest California Albums Yet

Claire Boucher's feels like a sonic tour around the world—but it also reflects also a distinctly American brand of self-determination.

Joni Mitchell was the absolute last person I was expecting to think of when listening to the new album by GrimesArt Angels, leaked earlier this week ahead of today's release date—but it's the year 2015 AD after all, and so I guess I should expect the unexpected. "California," the second track from her new record, shares a name with one of Mitchell's most famous songs, but also, strangely, to my ear, a spirit: But my heart cried out for you, California/ California I'm coming home, sang Mitchell in 1971, presumably about some brief but unbearable time away from the West Coast; California/ you only like me when you think I'm looking sad, sings Boucher in 2015, possibly to another person, possibly to the place.


Mitchell's is classic folk, Grimes's is honky-tonk-inflected post-modern pop, but both "California"s exude a kind of winsome melancholy. It's part joy, part loneliness, part something else that's harder to describe—a feeling I often encounter in good art about the open coast of California, from Stevie Nicks to Joan Didion. Mitchell's vision of "California" is one of liberation, the geographical culmination of a "Go West" mentality that allowed her to meet her people and make the best music of her career, but it came with the complicated emotions about living so far from where she came from. Her 1971 album, Blue—the one that contained "California"—is the sound of being young and creative and on your own, and all of the wonderful and frightening things that come along with that. Grimes's lyrics point to some difficult experiences she's been having—I didn't think you'd end up treating me so bad—but singing against the song's plucky hand-clap beat, major chords, and country guitar, she still sounds like she's excited to be there.

Like Mitchell, who was from Alberta, Boucher—a Vancouver native—moved to California for a fresh start. Boucher came of age in the Montreal punk scene; her 2012 breakout album, Visions, was remarkable at the time of its release for being as DIY in its genesis (she recorded on the whole thing at home, on GarageBand) as it was pop in sound. But when it unexpectedly took off and made her a star, things started getting a whole lot more complicated. In an interview with the FADER this year, Boucher says she struggled with the insane schedule and the pressures of celebrity, especially online, where she often found herself a target for the public's anxieties about feminism and art and commerce. "There was a point where I remember putting a hand up and grabbing a piece of my hair, and I could just pull my hair out," she told the magazine of the two-year-period of intense touring that followed Visions' release. "I was, like, beyond exhausted, and I was just really unstable." Boucher rescinded into a kind of self-imposed isolation in a mountainous region of British Columbia called Squamish. It wasn't until she moved to LA last fall that, per the FADER interview, she began to "slowly integrat[e] back into society." Art Angels sounds like her greeting a new world with a happy hello.


The album is complex but convivial, and her "California," like Joni's, is made to listen to with the windows down. If Art Angels is Boucher's moving-to-California album, though, its greatness is that it's also so many other things, too, including her poppiest and most varied, pulling equally from industrial music and chintzy muzak, Disney theme songs and country. It careers like a car on the LA freeways, zooming through so many distinct sonic neighborhoods by finding the slickest, easiest-to-access route right through them. But Art Angels is also a trip around the world, an album that flips through sounds from Taiwan to Tennessee as quickly as a radio dial—as futuristic and cartoonishly improbable as a car that can fly.

And while Boucher seems obsessed with the sheer math and magic of what makes the best pop songs pop, Art Angels sounds like a person sharing the raw ingredients and data of those spells and formulas, pointing to the best parts of everything she's ever cared about.

Following the success of Visions—an album in love with the thrills of pop but far murkier and distant in its delivery of them than Art Angels—she signed with Jay Z's management company, Roc Nation. She performed at Versace parties and went on tour opening for Lana Del Rey. She wrote a song, "Go," for Rihanna that ended up not being used by star, and then released it on her own. She's an icon of DIY musicianship that is interested in making music for the pop world, but whether she wants to be a pop star herself is sort of unclear. "I didn't want to be a pop star—I wanted to be like Phil Spector," she said in FADER. "I wanted to be the person behind the scenes who no one ever had to look at—who just could be crazy and be a genius and have a performer fulfill their creative wishes. But that wasn't possible, so I just had to do it myself."


Art Angels does luxuriate in a certain kind of catchy pop-ness, but Boucher is careful to keep some remove from conventions or straightness. There's her signature vocal reverb, which maintains the audience slightly at a distance from her words, and is leagues away from the crisp closeness you hear in most mainstream pop. And while Boucher seems obsessed with the sheer math and magic of what makes the best pop songs pop, Art Angels sounds like a person sharing the raw ingredients and data of those spells and formulas, pointing to the best parts of everything she's ever cared about.

Think of this as pot luck pop—a little Taylor Swift sprinkled here, a little Kill Bill soundtrack there, some Kyary Pamyu Pamyu to finish it off. The first single, "Flesh Without Blood," sounds something like pop punk band Paramore and Swift playing on top of each other on two different computers. And as soon as "California" is over, we're across oceans on "Scream," which features Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes spitting in mandarin and sounds like spaghetti western industrial music. What else do we hear in Art Angels? The starry-eyed romance of the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack, Madonna's ethereal Ray of Light, Trent Reznor, Evanescence, Dolly Parton. Grimes wears her tastes on her sleeve—her Tumblr is an open book of inspirations (Kali Uchis music videos! Joanna Newsom! Cats!) and her own live-tweeting of listening to Lana Del Rey's latest record was better than pretty much any other review. Art Angels, more than anything she's released thus far, seems to revel in that constellation of incongruous reference points.

What hasn't been said yet—and what maybe shouldn't need to be said in 2015—is that, like Mitchell before her, Boucher did all of this herself. She learned a bunch of analog instruments, engineered them herself, and sharpened her electronic production chops to make some of the more ambitious sounds. She is a one-woman impresario—as skillful behind the boards as she is at creating stylish looks for videos and performances. For all of our musical choices in the modern age, our ear for pop has been shaped by fewer people than it could be—one dude, Max Martin, working with the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, laid so much of the groundwork for what we still hear on the radio almost 20 years later, it's a little comical.

Even though Grimes' wonky twist on what our ears recognize as "pop" is not always perfect or palatable—"Realti," a loosie she released about half a year prior to Visions, is so close to sounding like a radio smash and yet somehow so, so far—it's still entirely hers, not masterminded by producers who have time-tested what sells best to corporate radio formats. "I can't use an outside engineer," she told the New Yorker recently. "Because, if I use an engineer, then people start being, like, 'Oh! That guy just did it all' It's a mostly male perspective—you're mostly hearing male voices run through female performers." This is a problem as old as pop music itself: Mitchell, who also produced all of her own music, has experienced her own fair share of chauvinist bullshit. "All my battles were with male egos," the legend told New York magazine earlier this year. "I'm just looking for equality, not to dominate. But I want to be able to control my vision."

Perhaps, then, what Boucher shares with Joni Mitchell is, more than sound, independence. As a Roc Nation artist on the rise, she could have probably worked with Max Martin if she had wanted to. But why would she? Her music, like Mitchell's, rings with the joy of doing your own thing. Maybe this is Boucher's Blue, the Mitchell album that plainly, generously distilled what is so masterful about her as a thinker and an artist. This music makes me cry / It sounds just like my soul, sings Grimes on the new "California." Will you take me as I am? Mitchell asked on the old one. The answer to the latter, at least from Mitchell's adoring fans, has always been yes, which should be a comfort to Grimes. It is anyone's guess what Boucher's Court and Spark will sound like, but the good news is that it will absolutely sound like Grimes.