Out now on 4AD
Claire Boucher’s fourth release as Grimes suggests that we’re already living in the future. The aspects of her music that typically indicate a distant sci-fi environment feel natural, purposeful and human on Visions. IDM percussion, pitch-shifted vocals and otherworldly synth tones are not used to challenge the listener, but are integral parts of Boucher’s artfully heartfelt and instantly enjoyable music.
In 2012, artists have unprecedented access to a range of digital musical equipment. It has never been easier to collect programs and plug-ins, easily stolen on the Internet, to produce homemade music. Given the excessive availability of music making tools, there is still something to be said about exemplary songwriting.
With “Genesis” and “Oblivion” Grimes builds lush landscapes around unforgettable melodies and song structures. Boucher employs the digital elements but never relies on them. “Oblivion” would still be a killer song if performed solo on an acoustic guitar. It’s easy to imagine that Visions’ compositions would translate well into other voices and instrumentation. Her vocals, high and ecstatically confident, are often manipulated for a spatial effect. Reverb, looping, reversal, and delay are used to push Boucher’s falsetto to the edges of her songs.
Boucher’s other secret weapon is her Roland Juno-G, a synthesizer designed after the Juno synths of the mid-80s. Her use of the instrument avoids the trappings of nostalgia or overly referential tones. Intricate rhythm is also key on Visions. The production (credited to Grimes) is constantly active. Electronic drums punctuate the music while fluidly panning between speakers. There is a dizzying effect on “Vowels = Space and Time,” but the listener is grounded and caught in a staring contest with the main vocal. During the hook at 2:04, Boucher hangs as far back on the beat as she can without losing it. (It is strikingly similar to Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You” — “We can ride the boogie” at 0:46 vs. “Vowels = Space and Time” at 2:04). It’s a small detail, but it works to illustrate Boucher’s unabashed embrace and sincere enthusiasm for star-power pop music.
Boucher’s own black-and-white paintings of aliens, skulls, ribbons and hearts decorate the album sleeve and insert. In a video from her days as a student at McGill University in Quebec, she explains a painting that became the insert of Visions, saying she’s into “heavy metal imagery” but not the music. There is also what appears to be a 3D alien head on the back of the album. This speaks to her use of “cool” aesthetics, which constitute the visual part of the Grimes project. To account for multimedia aspects, Boucher has also said that she’s trying to make a music video for every song on Visions.
The cartoonishly cheerful Boucher goes into full on UFO diva mode on “Eight” and “Circumambient.” “Eight” convincingly suggests that Boucher should be living in a palace on Naboo or at least fronting the cantina band from Star Wars. On “Circumambient” the shouting of “Let’s go!” and the cut-and-paste vocal stutter give the song an energized physicality.
“Skin” is a uniquely vulnerable moment. The lyric, “Why don’t you talk to me? / You act like nothing ever happened but it meant the world to me,” is a piercing bit of explicitly raw emotion. The second time that lyric comes around it dissolves in distortion — given to the listener once, but is not revisited. “Skin” also momentarily suggests what a more adult Grimes record may one day sound like, her voice and attitude turning melancholy and mature.
“Know the Way” maintains the solemn atmosphere with what sounds like a digital acoustic guitar emulator and waves of Boucher’s now familiar voice escaping in all directions, the album effectively concluded a far distance from its buoyant and joyful beginnings.