Grimes’s latest album Art Angels finds the Canadian, real name Claire Boucher, newly transplanted to California, “deep in the belly of the beat” of the entertainment industry. Images of selling-out recur (“You want money, you want fame”), set to a scattershot soundtrack of pure pop and confrontational noise, a merging of mainstream and alternative values. It treats the notion of selling-out as a quaint 20th-century relic.
The album has been wildly acclaimed. But its stance is contorted, preoccupied by an old-fashioned opposition of art versus commerce that it rejects. There was a hint of that self-serving logic at Brixton Academy when Boucher, before the last number, explained that she only plays encores under “special circumstances” — a point of principal with a generously apportioned loophole.
Tonight’s show did not qualify for it. However, it did bring a sharper focus to Art Angels’ songs. She opened with “Genesis”, a highlight of her 2012 breakthrough album Visions. A pair of dancers performed graceful movements and waved ribbon flags. An irresistible bassline and keyboard melody filled the venue, a swaying support for Boucher’s airy voice. Then came the first new song, “Realiti”, and the action stepped up a gear.
Boucher sang at the front of the stage, faced by that vital prop of arena pop shows, the wind machine. Her voice glided with polished ease over motivational clichés about climbing mountains. But the effect was destabilised by an immense techno beat that rampaged through the polite dance-pop. Absent from the recorded version, it turned the song into a far more forceful proposition.
The amplification continued throughout the set, which drew on Art Angels’ most dynamic moments. “Scream” set wild vocalising to a hard-boiled bassline, while “Venus Fly” was a barrage of flashing lights and laser sounds. “Go”, which does not appear on the album, flipped between fluttery blandishments and demented electronic dance music routines.
Fluorescent lighting and the dancers gave the staging a Burning Man festival feel, tilting away from mainstream pop to the stranger shores of rave culture. Assisted by her support act, Los Angeles singer Hana “HANA” Pestle, Boucher variously sang, cued beats and played guitar and keyboards. There was a freedom to her act, an exuberant confusion of roles. Art Angels makes better sense on stage than on record.