Grimes' Psychedelic Electro-Witchpop
There are musicians that hook you in with a single earworm-y track, and there are those that reel you in, gently, into their entire musical oeuvre and their singular soundscape. Vancouver-based alternative musician Grimes (the stage name of Claire Boucher) first caught my attention with the relatively successful 'Genesis' and 'Oblivion', which were accompanied by interesting and well-produced music videos that gained significant viewership on Youtube.
With its unique combination of art pop, synthpop, witchhouse, baroque pop, dream pop, electro-R&B and dark wave, Grimes' music is not easy to characterize. Her lyrics sometimes fit into the 'tradition' set by more typical pop songs, but the often extensive vocal layering and looping create a dreamy, ethereal effect that, when juxtaposed against a backdrop of energetic and electro-beats, create an unusual atmosphere that fuses robotic precision with otherworldly dreaminess. While there are dark undertones to some of the tracks, there's also a certain 'lightness' to the delivery that sets the music apart from traditional witchhouse and baroque pop. I suppose one could call it electro-witchpop.
Like her genres, Grimes is eclectic with her musical influences, citing a wide range of musicians not commonly associated with one another. There are the influential pop queens like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé and fellow contemporary Lana Del Rey, but also gothic eccentrics like Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails, and foreign influences like Enya and K-pop.
All this diversity creates a recipe for many variations and permutations within her work, currently spanning three albums: Geidi Primes (2010), Halfaxa (2010), and (the most critically acclaimed) Visions (2012). There are many tracks, such as 'Weregild', ‘Dream Fortress’ and 'Heartbeats', where scanty lyrics are heavily repeated and layered to create a signature mood, an emotive atmosphere, while in other tracks like 'Oblivion', the distorted lyrics amount to a clear narrative that gains resonance when one analyzes the accompanying music video more thoroughly. I won't spoil the track's subtle message, here, but let's just say that Grimes beat Lady Gaga ('Till it Happens to You') when it came to addressing the problem of sexual violence against young women with contemporary music.
In June 2014, Grimes released the track 'Go', which gained critical acclaim (Rolling Stone ranked it No. 14 on their Best Songs of 2014 list), but disappointed her fans by departing from her previous sound. While the track is a decent dance-pop anthem in its own right, there seems to be a shallowness to it (both in terms of lyrical content and overall production) that contrasted starkly against her previous work (one should note that the track was allegedly written for Rihanna). Perhaps Grimes was, like many other outlier artists, trying to accommodate her musical output to more mainstream tastes. While her motivations for doing so aren’t clear, Grimes scrapped the studio album she was working on at the time and went back to the drawing board.
In May 2015, she announced via Twitter that her fourth album will be out in October and promised that it will be “very different from anything Previous” (Pitchfork, May 2015). I’ll definitely be looking out for its release, and waiting to see if she will successfully innovate on the signature soundscapes she created in Halfaxa and Visions, or whether she'll takes things in an entirely new direction.