Thursday, 29 March 2012

Why Visions by Grimes is the best album of 2012

Visions is the first album of 2012 - maybe even of the last twelve months - to make me want to shout about it (or indeed blog about it). It's an album that throws out (most of) the clichés of electronic music and takes stunning risks - not in an overblown, prog rock fashion, but entirely unpretentiously.

There's plenty of lo-fi electronic music about at the moment (mostly of the Washed Out variety), and you could be forgiven for mistaking Grimes for another one of these acts. But thought it may also sound as like  it's been produced on a MacBook, Grimes (the pseudnonym of Claire Boucher) it swaps fashionable fuzzy textures and 80s synths for a piercingly sharp and (ahem) grimy style. Like Crystal Castles, it contrasts angelic voices, beautiful keyboard and harp accompaniment with Skeillex-esque roars and demonic voice modifiers.

In fact Crystal Castles is probably quite a good comparison, except that Grimes swaps its blistering teenage angst for something more meditative and considered - and ultimately, scarier. The songs are too of a high standard, with complex melodies that are somehow catchy despite being impossible to sing along to.

And speaking of singing - the greatest risk taken by Boucher on Visions is with her voice, which switches frequently between a squeaky whispering lisp and an ethereal siren's voice. Both of which are undoubtedly an acquired taste, but believe me, it's worth sticking with.

That said, it's not a perfect album: in particular, the opening and closing tracks are two of the weakest, neither providing a good introduction to the album or providing a satisfying conclusion. In fact, it's an album that works as well on shuffle as it does in order.

I've long thought that the 21st century's singer songwriters won't just be stuck with guitar and piano, repeating the same old sounds as previous generations - no, the future is in exploring the new opportunities increasingly affordable music software can offer. We've had plenty of electronic music, mostly dance, in the past two decades, but solo artists like James Blake and Grimes are producing a new breed of ground-breaking, deeply individual electronic music with emotional depth.


  1. Couldn't disagree more. Here's my review:

    In terms of press attention, things are looking up for Grimes. The Montreal-based chanteuse (née Claire Bouchard) has attracted the attention of music critics with Visions, her third full-length project and first since signing with the record label that handles Bon Iver, 4AD. Some critics give the record high marks, they deem this latest project “a smart, funny album,” they aver that “everything on Visions is a total jam,” they call Grimes “beguiling,” a “bizarro pop star,” and they agree with her—given the diverse sounds of the past she uses and abuses—that her sound is “post-internet.” On this point, we couldn't agree more.

    Straightaway (“Infinite Love Without Fulfillment), Grimes blends infectious K-pop vocables with bass timbres directly from the early post-MIDI age. (It is small coincidence that several critics connect the palette of Visions with the Cocteau Twins.) Just before the lead track begins to stale, in dance some diminished harmonies redolent of the Residents. The list of diverse sounds continues. Pads worthy of Brian Eno or Pat Metheny (“Genesis”), orchestra hits from the DX-7 and even melodic fragments from Del Shannon (“Oblivion”) make their appearance to more or less joyous effect.

    The point of bountiful inspirations raises the downside of the “post-internet” age, whatever that means. Start with all the available sounds online, combine them with a number of elegant software programs, let loose a bunch of unrestrained ideas, and you've got yourself Visions. Its best tracks are “Symphonia IX” and snatches of “Nightmusic,” but, before reaching those moments, listeners are asked to wade through thirty-five minutes of gnostic, self-satisfied self-expression desperately in need of edits. Less is more. For example, “Skin” would have been improved if the oscillating “oohs” that lead off the track had been purged, because they don't serve any essential function. We could go on.

    Moreover, the whole record sounds as if it were recorded in Notre Dame cathedral, suffused as it is with Garage Band echo. The project is too busy for its own good, and the echo effect added to flaunt goth cred only compounds the clutter. This has a particularly damaging effect on meaning—it is as if Grimes has consciously rendered her lyrics unintelligible, to remain forever alone in her echo-cocoon, to prevent audiences from singing along. (the WTF-o-meter pegs on “Eight” – is that “Tardis, Tardis”?!) Unless she alters course, we can't predict a real flourishing. No singalong, no communication. No communication, no community.

    Worse than being too busy, the album is largely uncompelling. Amid the clutter, a small number of effects—a balloonish bass timbre, for instance, in addition to the aforementioned echo and needless stereo panning—recur ad nauseam. When we read Grimes described on the Arbutus Records website as “weird pop,” we brace ourselves and enthusiastically prepare for the unexpected, but there's little about Visions that genuinely fits the bill. What's weird about every song being in four-four (i.e., “common”) time? What's unexpected—considering the untutored source—about an album so wanting in harmonic exploration that it makes the Ramones smirk admiringly? What's weird about a twenty-something musician imploring, as Grimes surely does here, “listen to my potential”?

    Press-wise, things are looking up, but the somewhat puzzling success of Grimes is a testament to audiences who prize potential over proven ability, who root for underdogs like everybody's on Idol, who sense that everyone is auditioning, now that we're in the post-internet age.

  2. Great counter-review, Michael! (Thought of starting a blog of your own?)

    I'm not sure there's much I could say to change your mind, since we seem to have opposite views on the Grimes' production. I think it's spookily lo-fi, and you think it's derivative and unprofessional. And the lack of communication is one of the reasons I like it so much - like Kid A (both the album, and the song), the vocals aren't the traditional "human element" designed to connect the listener to the music, but to provide another layer of instrumentation. Does it matter what she's singing on 'Eight'? I don't think so, in fact I think it adds to the atmosphere.

    There was one sentence in your review that stuck out for me: "Start with all the available sounds online, combine them with a number of elegant software programs, let loose a bunch of unrestrained ideas, and you've got yourself Visions." I wonder why you believe that's a bad thing?

    Ps. I agree on one point though, the first track really does suck.

  3. Wow I stumbled upon your site because I was googling "Tardis, Grimes, and Visions" to see if she really was saying "Tardis".... lol.... and here I get these two very fascinating, in-depth reviews that are absolutely diametrically opposed, for lack of a better term. I value both your reviews of Visions, as you are both vastly more knowledgable about music industry/theory/composition than I am. But I should say before going further that I am biased toward Elliot's summation, as I have been hypnotized by Grimes' music ever since I first heard "Vanessa." I do agree that Grimes is an acquired taste; there are a handful of songs I can't even tolerate (have you tried to listen to Dragvandril??). Sure the girl could use some polish on many of those tracks, and barely anyone I've played her music for appreciates it as I do. That's the thing about Grimes - she's not trying to entertain the American mainstream and she's also not trying to be so obscure that only the most pretentious hipsters care to listen to her. So I wonder if the average listener - now, we may be ignorant of the nuances of music composition, but we are not stupid - needs be so worried about the degree of "cathedral" in a track, or how much of her content is derivative of other bands. Or comes off as "self-satisfied."


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