On her 2012 breakthrough, Visions, singer-producer Claire Boucher (a.k.a. Grimes) was an indie-rock fan’s platonic ideal of a pop star – blurring moody electro and moodier R&B in music that she made herself on Garageband, turning the underground into her own diva stadium, all while implying that actual pop success was something she could take or leave. Since then, she’s signed to Jay Z’s management firm Roc Nation, toured with Lana Del Rey and moved from Montreal to L.A. But the big news on her fourth album is how much she’s upped her game as a writer and a singer, giving her music new polish and resonance. Art Angels has a sharper, sleeker sound that sneakily suggests she made the leap to working with big-name producers – when in fact, as always, she did everything herself. And impressively: Just check the first single, “Flesh Without Blood,” a thrilling liberation anthem that channels her atmospheric vocal filigree through something akin to Max Martin-style dance-pop. On Visions, Boucher’s airy vocals often melted into the music. And while she’ll never be a vocal powerhouse, she’s added nuance to her singing, switching from cheerleader chant to take-no-prisoners growl on the bubble-punk banger “Kill V. Maim,” and bringing some aching lilt over West African blues guitar and crosscutting beatbox jump-up on “California,” an ambivalent ode to her new ecologically doomed home state.
Boucher, who recently compared herself to Phil Spector, loves to refract her voice into multi-tracked swirls, making desire, physicality and identity itself seem forever in flux. “I could live in the world like a stranger,” she sings on the somber “Life In the Vivid Dream,” and on “Kill V. Maim,” she switches genders altogether, singing “I’m only a man/Do what I can.” It’s the radical hallmark of an artist who loves upending convention, pulling from any style that suits her and making all these surprising gestures seem natural. On “Venus Fly,” she gets together with Janelle Monáe for a global feminist floorshaker that sounds like Gwen Stefani on an M.I.A. bender. The title track rides a funky guitar line adjacent to Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” and some avant-Britney cooing towards a line that could be ad copy for her transformative eclecticism: “Everything I love becomes everything I knew.”