Grimes - ‘Skin’ from Visions
Why I like this album: it’s fun to listen to. Although I started off doubting that fact, considering it ‘too poppy’, it quickly grew on me - mostly as background music via Spotify, something that’s helped cement the oft-quoted if nebulous association between Grimes and internet culture. In fact, the first time I downloaded (bought!) the portable mp3s and went out for a walk with headphones on it took some adjusting to hear the full bass and the rest of the songs foregrounded, with relatively undivided attention. It might sound like a negative mark against an album to appreciate it through distraction (at least when one’s conception of a ‘work of art’ is a standalone piece or object of reflection, itself a quaint notion in a world of multi-tabbed browsers and live-anything commentary) but I think Visions’ strength is precisely in the way that certain of its disparate elements punch through the virtual fog.
A fog in part created by its own ambient textures, perhaps, or the mechanical impetus of electronic music. Which is another thing, that I started talking about in relation to Burial - I’m not normally very good with beat-driven music. It’s only certain artists that I enjoy - tolerate, even - listening to, and generally I think it’s because I feel there’s something more to them, that makes them more accessible or more interesting (to me). It’s not that I don’t like a good beat in itself, just that it’s still something a little awkward in listening to and talking about it. In that respect a lot of the groundwork has been done by Elite Gymnastics’ RUIN (and before that, Robyn).
I like the sort of magpie approach to sound taken by both Grimes and Elite Gymnastics, and the fashioning of that into emotionally resonant soundscapes. Though there’s a strong contrast between the two, as well: Grimes’ beats are more languid than EG’s anxious freneticism, and while RUIN overlaid its energetic pop with sombre tones, it’s almost the opposite on Visions where the airy vocals often seem to be undercut by a base sinisterness. Neither is probably a very original approach to electronic music, but it’s the flair with which the combinations are carried out.
Another comparison-and-contrast which naturally occupies my mind is with my main favourite of last year, EMA. Apart from them both being artistic projects of hugely talented young women, there are probably more differences than similarities. In a way, they’re almost total opposites: EMA looking backwards to the past of guitar-based blues and folk, analogue recording and manipulation; Grimes embracing a digital future of technologised, immaterial sounds and electronic pop. But there’s a common thread of self-production, experimentation and control of process, in an attempt to forge a wholly authentic artistic vision - where ‘authentic’ means nothing more and nothing less than ‘true to self’.
Nothing in Visions is as lyrically visceral as ‘Marked’, although the subject matter and import of ‘Oblivion’ probably comes close, but issues of sex and physicality are there as well on songs like this one. It sounds to me like ‘Skin’ has at least four different vocal styles running through it, and their audibility and textural qualities convey the multifariousness of human thought and (internal) ‘voice’ (“you act like nothing happened/but it meant the world to me” softly spoken, “you can’t see the wind in the trees” beautifully sung). The dream-like quality of the following album closer, ‘Know The Way’ seems like a commentary on knowledge itself and its eternal evasiveness.
The structure of Visions as an album appeals to me, with an intro (‘Infinite Love Without Fulfilment’ - one of many great titles) and outro which work well both as bookends as and short songs in their own right. ‘Genesis’ and ‘Oblivion’ are the obvious singles, although ‘Be a Body’ and ‘Skin’ are my real favourites. In fact I much prefer the calmer section in the latter half of ‘Colour of Moonlight’, ‘Symphonia X’ and ‘Nightmusic’ to the punchier, more electro first half - but old sensibilities die hard and I’m now starting to get a more natural appreciation for the earlier tracks. ‘Circumambient’ in particular is an intriguing mixture of doom-laden beats and klaxon-like vocals - but to pick individual songs out of the mix is almost to abandon my original experience of the record. Which is to sit back and let it carry on around me.