Four songs into Grimes's Meadows set tonight, as Claire Boucher flies around the stage in freeze frames, locking into her next pose with a fluent immediacy, the screen behind her a frenetic mesh of red blood cells and pink confetti, a girl walks through the puddle next to me and hands me a pair of flimsy cardboard glasses. She says that she had a real kaleidoscope earlier, but she lost it. These will have to do. They diffract the light from the stage and turn every flash into a cheap, spotty rainbow, a dozen needless spectrums clumsily holding firm over the image of the stage.
I'd have killed for these two hours ago. The Meadows, in its inaugural year, is a tailgate masquerading as a music festival, held in the parking lot of the New York Mets's stadium in North Queens. The sky matches the concrete, dull grey from every angle. Sea gulls are swarming around the place like a poor remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds.' It's a banal dystopia, mostly. I'd have taken the superficial flashes of colour as a get-out.
But now, in the middle of Grimes's set, there's no need for cheap escapes; Boucher's artifice takes control of its surroundings and casually flips them off. With the stage a swarm of colour, she screws her eyes shut when she reaches up to the top of her register, swimming into the deep end of her voice, following the tide as much as she's kicking forward. And then, without warning, she lets out a deep, guttural grunt.
Up against the concrete, Grimes is all colour and invention. By the time the introduction of "laughing and not being normal" has tripped into "Realiti," she's already established her artifice. "Oh, when I get up, this is what I see," she sings over the throbbing little glitches. "Welcome to reality."
And so this'll be her reality. She takes "Go"'s central thesis and stretches it out: "Happy scenes, a stupid dream when I dream of you / They don't stay, it might all be delusion, but I couldn't say," she sings. I need to take these glasses off. "And I'd like to think that we don't drink just to drink, you know?"
That thought, the hoping that she and her partner "don't drink just to drink," takes on more weight in this setting. This set is all art and creation, a reality apart from reality. On stage, she demands more than simple escapism. She gets at it in "Venus Fly," asking, right at the top of her range, "Why you looking at me against the music?" Come for the show, she says, don't just come for the image.
And so "Go"'s questioning of cheap inebriation takes that on. Live, grimes is all those "Happy scenes, a stupid dream," none of the cheap get-outs of shit beer and kaleidoscope glasses.
She plays the hits. "Genesis" and "Oblivion," both draw from arpeggiated synthesizers, both overlaying that insistence with a breathy daydream. But it's "SCREAM" that really connects. On record, it's a clattering collaboration with Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, Grimes producing rather than singing. But here she performs the track in Russian—Taiwanese is hard—and refers to it as "a bit of a screamo track." Her voice is beyond overdriven, a collection of yelps and howls building to a riot. As she dances, she edges towards the grotesque, contorting herself into sharp heart monitor peaks on the stage floor before eventually exhausting herself and flatlining.
"SCREAM" marks the only time that Boucher pushes that high into noise, though. Elsewhere the set is chopped up by Boucher's deep, guttural grunts, coming out of nowhere. The careful naivety of her voice, a perfectly constructed sweetness, is cut off without warning and thrown out, flipped into something monstrous. Sometimes it's how she moves from track to track, sometimes its there for punctuation or a wake-up call. Every time, it's an odd relief. Like a careful and engrossing stage show in the middle of a parking lot at the start of October, the grunts demand attention.
She closes with "World Princess Part II" and "Kill V. Maim." On the former, it's all irrepressible beats and roaming melodies. Her voice crescendoes and reaches its high point a bar before the synths do the same; she's ahead of the beat, ahead of the sound. On the latter, it's all noise. She lets out that low-down grunt again, half a black veil flying around the back of her head while her screen shows cut metal ribbons. Now, those vocal spasms really do sound exhausted.
That, the emotional and physical exhaustion that's squeezed through her cut-up vocal chords, is a brief flicker of reality, a glimpse behind the curtain. It's the sonically violent equivalent of seeing an actor sweat onstage, seeing their body react the same way that their character's might, realising that they have the same physical reactions as the fictions they inhabit. It's not great because of the reality, it's great because, for just a second, that reality pierces the performance and accentuates it.
And in the middle of a parking lot, in the middle of fall, with the sun finally setting enough to hide the endless grey sky, that really is transcendent. Those kaleidoscope glasses would have made the colours look awful pretty, but that's not why Grimes is here.
Lead image by Liz Barclay.
Alex Robert Ross is totally art. Follow him on Twitter.