Canadian artist Claire Boucher’s pop experiment has the hooks - and transgressive heart - to stand the test of time, reflects Ruth Saxelby.
In a year that’s seen our relationship with the internet reach almost uncomfortable levels of dependency (who hasn’t felt that burning sensation at the base of the eye socket, the paralysing ennui of #tmi or fantasised about throwing their laptop out a window), it took the artist painted as the post-internet poster girl to name the paradoxical desire fueling the frustration. Be A Body, the beating heart of Grimes’ 2012 breakthrough album ‘Visions’, is so radically simple – obvious, even – in the way all the best pop songs are that it grabbed me by the scruff of the neck from the moment I first heard it and has yet to loosen its grip.
“It’s probably the song that’s most taking from the contemporary dialogue on the record,” Claire Boucher told me in her home city of Vancouver when I interviewed her back in January. That Be A Body was written partly as a response to Pictureplane’s 2011 underground dance anthem Post Physical, which celebrated the web’s ability to unite disembodied minds, underlines her astute reading of the times. Yet above and beyond its timeliness is a deep sensuality that acts as subtext on ‘Visions’.
“Soft skin / You touch me within / And so I know I could be human once again”, Boucher sings on Skin, a song that finds her reaching for the very top of her range over gentle pads and an icy-fine melody to illustrate physical intimacy’s transformative ability. Symphonia IX (My Wait Is U) is similarly affecting, led by a chorus of low “ah-oh-ah”s that recall a meditation class or even a prenatal breathing exercise. “I try / I try / To make you cry / And make you love me,” she confesses, her voice almost indecipherable yet her meaning loud and clear. Even Boucher’s biggest song Genesis (over 5.1 million views on YouTube and counting) pivots on a poignantly familiar sensuality, reframing the twin truisms that love is blind, and hurts: “My heart will never feel / Will never see / Will never know / Oh, heart / And then it falls / And then I fall / And then I know”.
Self-tagged as somewhere between TLC and Aphex Twin, ‘Visions’ embodies Boucher’s intention to innovate within, not outside, pop’s structure; both building on and subverting the genre. The bassline of Colour of Moonlight (Antiochus) has Prince’s When Doves Cry in its DNA, while Enya’s intricate vocal layering informed Boucher’s approach to her voice as instrument. Eight and Circumambient have a Eisbaer-era Grauzone energy to them, a post-punk funk that feels earthy and urgent. The Tiffany-evoking Vowels = Space And Time is one of the lighter moments on the album but still contains one of her best, gender-unpicking lines: “You could be a better friend / Cos I could be a better man”.
Having remapped her lifelong fascination with the fantasy literature canon on her sometimes self-consciously experimental debut ‘Geidi Primes’ and its more considered, occasionally excellent, follow-up ‘Halfaxa’ [both released on Arbutus, 2010], ‘Visions’ is the sound of Boucher reclaiming the pop realm. On a technical level she doesn’t forego sonic experimentation for song craft, rejecting contemporary pop’s inherent mantra that to go mainstream is to dumb down. And on a conceptual level she channels that aforementioned sensuality into an invigorating portrait of self-possessed female sexuality, turning pop’s well-thumbed, predominantly male fantasy serving, script upside down.
While Boucher’s astronomical rise to stardom is due in part to her embrace of a fluid, playful yet assured approach to the visual identity of Grimes – shrewdly harnessing the “visual catchiness” that she first realised with the making of her Vanessa video – the transgressive nature of her music is too often overlooked. Both gutsy and tender, ‘Visions’ might be an album born of the internet – segueing between genres and eras with ease – yet it navigates a thrilling new path to mass appeal while rejecting patriarchy’s oh-so-tired ideas of titillation. For this alone I would applaud it, but it’s that Boucher wrote it with such an instinctive understanding of what makes a song speak to the body that will forever make ‘Visions’ an album that I hold dear.