Grimes’ Visions is an absolute blast. Easy to admire, easy to love. But Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom if it isn’t tough to describe. Coaxing these 13 lucky strikes into a literary sandwich is like trying to photograph a sleeping ghost, stroke the northern lights or bag a will o’ the wisp with a fishing net. It’s somewhat tricky. It’s electronic and yes, très “dream pop”, but double-dipped with flavours of world and classical music. It’s melodic enough to whistle in the shower, yet way too freaky for Village fêtes. It’s experimental and free to roam, yet all the pieces click. It’s formulaic, but only in that there’s no formula. Yes, Visions is its own willful contrary. So, faced with this Promethean task to dissipate magic—and in honour of Grimes’ Minnie Ripperton-sized vocal virtuosity—it’s time to suck up a lungful of helium and count to ten…
Visions is Grimes’—‘Claire Boucher’ to her Ma—third full-lengther and the first for (genuflects) hallowed label 4AD. Not only that, but it arrives surfin’ a tsunami of hope ‘n’ hype heading to baptize an ever-expanding congregation. Luckily for Visions then it’s shots of satisfied sighs all around Barman as not only does it meet the great expectations set by Halfaxa and Geidi Primes, but it tickles their fancy and does a victory lap just for kicks. It’s got kindling for Daddy Warbucks’ pop crossover, but plenty tales o’ the unexpected too. So how best to describe Visions? No idea. But listening to it brought flashbacks of that wild scene from Mean Streets. No, not the ‘Mook’ bunfight but Harvey Keital’s loaded, levitational ‘SnorriCam’ ride set to Chips’ “Rubber Biscuit”. An out-of-body, disorientating trip where lights, faces, smells and sounds float by on a goodtime carousel… and sometimes they plant a big wet kiss on your cheek and ruffle your hair.
It’s “Art Pop” but it’s definitely got “Pop”. If there’s a blueprint to Visions it’s to lasso a pure pop vocal melody from the ‘80s/‘90s—preferably early Madonna or Mariah. Speed it up, slow it down, turn it around and then tip it into a blender amongst masterfully diced hip-hop beats and lightly chopped Far East synth-spices. Ming Dynasty, yum. Then serve chilled. “Genesis” has enough spiraling flags, firecrackers and carnival dragons to kickstart a Chinese New Year and comes decorated with such an elegant piano break Vince Guaraldi could’ve used it to cheer up Charlie Brown. “Oblivion” is similarly hypnotic and halcyon, weaving and bobbing like Del Shannon’s “Runaway” under anaesthesia, resplendent with vintage “Why, why, why” harmonies. “See you on a dark night,” coos Boucher in her sugar-rush voice over a seriously-supersized royale “Do fries go with that shake?” bass. Later the R&B crystal chandelier sparkle and Prince percussion of “Vowels = space and time” twinkle like Nite Jewel reviving Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots”. Both “Vowels” and “Oblivion” even stir echoes of Art of Noise’s lush “Moments in Love”, a song famously so enamored by Madonna it soundtracked her wedding to Paparazzi-playmate Sean Penn.
But like all bedsit Beethovens, there’s a real desire to ‘push the sound’. A childlike curiosity to pull it apart, unravel it and rebuild it. “Circumambient” launches with airplane engines and what sounds like someone hitting your bedroom window with a tennis ball. From there, it takes punchy Depeche Mode circa 1987 industrial drums, an Afrika Bambaataa boombox, a stick of gum, a side twist o’ the cap, your best b-girl/b-boy ‘tude and you’re good to go. Similarly “Colour of Moonlight (Antiochus)” paints the streets with stars. Picture a crunchier “Celestica” by Crystal Castles—all wistful dizziness—add in the sound of a garage door slammin’, clone Grimes by five ‘Gremlins-style’ with water and let the room spin. Later, amusingly, “Be a Body” recalls Paul “Fab Macca” McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time” given a pulsating, neon-junglist paintjob before revealing a J-Horror twist involving a coach load of confused Monks and a Geisha fan dance. Well I did warn you this was hard to describe.
Visions really excels though in its closing act. Having got you hooked on the special stuff and jonesing for more, it brings out the real Class As. The glacial, midnight frost of “Skin” is all James Blake 3:00 am, slow-motion existentialism. Sparse, creaking, basement poetry with a ghostly dubstep edge. Even when you can’t catch the talking-in-tongues vocal, the mournful malady lingers. The absolute 20/20 treats of Visions though are the futurist electro-cinematics of “Symphonia IX” and “Nightmusic”. The former an atmospheric, widescreen night drive worthy of Blade Runner, rich with “Glitter in the dark”. A trance-like glide through neon and rain, its multi-layered vocals and Kraftwerk analogues slowly rising from the horizon. The Tron gridlines of “Nightmusic” are similarly captivating. Bookended by flourishes of operatic melodrama and string quartets it channels much of the ethereal beauty of Crystal Castles’ II. Blooms and flourishes of strange, twisted melody burst ‘n’ fall like confetti and fireworks. Wowzer.
Visions will undoubtedly be on many people’s “Best of 2012” lists; the others simply won’t have heard it. It’s the sound of ghosts in the machine, pixies in the garden, strange lights in the sky. It’s a little bit Nite Jewel, a little bit Glasser, but Grimes is ultimately her own sound. Hypnotic, exotic, magical. Sure, it could have done without some of the interludes (the Satie-esque “Know the Way” shimmers but “Eight” sounds like a face-off between Darth Vader and Alvin from Alvin & The Chipmunks) but its overall sense of ambition is intoxicating. Visions’ rebellious contrariness to evade classification is part of the design and certainly part of the charm. Buy it, love it. Just don’t to try to explain it and definitely don’t write about it.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.