Album of the Week: Grimes’ ‘Visions’: Baroque Synth Pop

Claire Boucher, the Montreal-based musician who records under the name Grimes, knows what she’s doing. Visions, the fourth Grimes album, forms a once non-existent bridge between the synth and dream pop of the 1980s and 1990s and a future music that Boucher, we can only hope, is continuing to dream up in her head.

And that’s what so exciting about Visions. The listener feels that he or she joins Boucher in the process of making musical discoveries as the record plays. Like any explorer on a mission of discovery, the listener brings along previously acquired equipment: in this case, knowledge of the influences that fill Boucher’s musical toolbox. Madonna’s high-pitched and intentionally girly early vocal styling takes up one compartment, while New Order’s synth washes and analog dance beats populate another. Other compartments reveal breathy dream pop vocal tendencies derived from Lush’s Miki Berenyi and the Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler (remember them?), as well as My Bloody Valentine’s Belinda Butcher and Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser. Boucher even reserves a corner of the toolbox for Trent Reznor’s foregrounding of classical piano figures against a backdrop of mechanical, industrial beats.

So how does Boucher use the equipment in her toolbox to find new musical lands? That is, what makes Visions move beyond the land of pastiche and into the realm of discovery? The record’s appropriately titled second track, “Genesis,” provides the answer to these questions. “Genesis” gives birth to newness. The song has all the tools that I mentioned in the previous paragraph, but it uses them to establish a textured pattern into which Boucher weaves many vocal melodies. Synth lines and piano figures become one with Boucher’s melodies, so that they become a part of a single, atmospheric whole. Unlike most pop music, where the music serves as backing for vocals and lyrics, “Genesis” is a cohesive work of art whose layered complexities create in the listener a stark awareness of the existence of beauty – and, as John Keats says, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” The experience of beauty is always new, always eternal, and always a genesis.

Of course, albums such as My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless (1991) and the Beach Boys’ SMiLE (2011) similarly seek beauty through the textured layering of musical motifs in a way that not only predates Visions but also borders on becoming classical music. But what these records don’t do – and what Visions does so well – is move the body as well as lift up the soul. Beautiful songs such as My Bloody Valentine’s “Sometimes” (1991) and the Beach Boys’ “Surf’s Up” (2011) are, like classical music, meant to be listened to, preferably with headphones in a lonely place. Boucher, on the other hand, gives you the option. If you want to dance to her beautiful and complex music, go right ahead. Excellent tracks like “Be a Body” and “Skin” not only remind you that you have a body but also that your body is beautiful and desires to be moved.

What Boucher has done on Visions is quite special and, indeed, new. She’s created what can only be described as baroque synth pop – a new genre that fills the soul with beauty just as it moves the body with rhythm.

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