Will Butler is a member of Arcade Fire. His debut solo record, Policy, came out spring 2015. You can follow him on Twitter here and like him on Facebook here.
The year 2015 yielded a truly eclectic and impressive crop of outstanding albums spanning all genres and generations of artists, from Justin Bieber to Sleater-Kinney to Madonna. So we’re celebrating some of the biggest records of the year with insightful pieces written by some very special people: musicians.
— The editors of Talkhouse Music
There’s the world music comes from, and there’s the world music creates. Sometimes it’s nice to claim that the world music comes from doesn’t matter, but that’s mostly accurate when the music in question basically comes from your world already. It’s parallel to the idea that you can be a rich white man and not really question white supremacy or general misogyny, but that’s a topic for a different piece.
Pop traditionally tries to recreate the world the listener already lives in, just with bigger cartoon eyes and soft corners on the tables. If you’re the victim, you’re always righteous; if you’re the aggressor, you’re always just. Weirdo music (I use the term broadly) creates its own esoteric world – makes up its own constants to plug into the physics equations that determine whether life ever evolves on the planet.
In Art Angels, Grimes is coming, to a large extent, from the world of 2000s pop, but she creates a giant, esoteric, viable world teeming with all sorts of poisonous Jurassic life.
My problem — my personal problem — is that I grew up prejudiced against 2000s pop, and that the atmosphere of the Jurassic period has the wrong ratio of elements for my organism. I’m more Cretaceous.
I appreciate and admire Art Angels. That sounds lame — no, it’s like how Orthodox Jews and devout Mormons get along. “I respect your devotion, and you probably understand me better than, say, anyone else on this F train — but I really, really don’t care that much about your Jesus. High fives on father Abraham, though.”
I feel most at ease with the track “Scream.” It makes literal my feeling that the album is speaking a different language. Aristophanes, a Taiwanese MC, raps in Mandarin. Grimes produces, and is only heard in screams. My goodness, I love lyrics in foreign languages. It turns off all sorts of uptight, judgmental circuits in my brain. The language barrier is a filter through which only charisma can pass. Aristophanes is plenty charismatic. Grimes’ production is charismatic. The work is divine and human. I think of the RZA alone back in the ’90s, sampling and nudging and piecing together technology. I think of Prince at the drum kit by himself in a carpeted room, listening to himself on headphones. It reminds me of the Irish monks saving civilization letter by letter at their desks, working till their eyes are bleary.
In “Scream,” there’s angry joy at how well the pieces fit together. It feels like solving a murder. It feels like Elijah calling down fire on the priests of Baal. (So: Elijah and the priests are in a sacrifice-off. They each have a cow on the altar, and they’re trying to call down fire from their god to light it. And the priests can’t do it and Elijah’s like, “What’s the matter? Is your god asleep? Is he taking a crap?” and then he’s like, “Pour water on my logs. Do it again. Do it again.” And then he’s like “BOOM” and the fire comes down from the heavens, and then he’s like, “Now let’s murder these assholes.” It’s so extreme.)
But on the other end, the song “Artangels” brings up the same suspicions I feel about “She Moves in Mysterious Ways.” I just keep wondering if the funkiness is justified. There’s no reason for my doubt — it’s prejudicial.
There’s a lot of filter sweeps on the bass and drums, either at the starts of songs or the ends of songs or in the middle of songs, and it instantly makes me feel like I’m listening to “I’m blue boo da ba dee da boo die doo daba dee daboo die.” That’s just the song that was everywhere in my teenage years, and I hated it. And I hate it still.
I’ve overcome musical prejudices in the past. I couldn’t stand Bob Dylan or Bob Marley — there were just so many know-nothing jerky-jerks drunk and stoned who loved them so deeply. With Bob Marley, it was listening to the Congos in my twenties that made me realize what a crazy, beautiful world I was missing out on in reggae. With Bob Dylan, I finally just dug in because, sigh, he’s culturally important. I did the same with Prince last year.
Prince is obviously a fine touchstone for talking about Grimes. “Can’t you see the enemy just isn’t me tonight?” she sings on “Butterfly,” and then sings about butterflies, possibly as a metaphor, though possibly as literally about butterflies. Classic Prince move — talking about himself, and the public view of him, but also just making freakin’ dance music, and also speaking his own religious language, and also talking about, I don’t know, gun violence? And trying to get in your pants if you want, baby, but is that really me uhh, oh reality is a, mmm, tikky tikky tikky tikky burntz burntz burntz.
Grimes is a genuine world-builder. She might could make worlds big and convincing enough to change lots of people’s perception of the actual world. It feels cold to stand outside her creation and judge it. It’s like watching the Big Bang from a different dimension — the heat and the particles flying, all future life boiling into itself, the globe of reality expanding. But from my perspective, flattened. Bas relief. It’s like Grimes herself sings — I think — on “Flesh Without Blood”: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each/I do not think that they will sing to me/We have lingered in the chambers of the sea/By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”