This Is My Jam: #3 - Circumambient - Grimes
Grimes could be an alien born out of some icky-ectoplasmic industrial-scale vat on a planet with an unpronounceable name. Her stage persona and music are an uncanny grab-bag of human signifiers. She has two eyes, two arms, and makes music with drums and voices in it, sure - but there’s always something Invasion of the Bodysnatchers about it all. A Yours Truly video filmed in May of last year opens with her limbering up, stretching her vocal cords with purrs and squeaks that seem mammalian, but more dolphin than human. (More uncanny - in interviews she has a somewhat deep, nervy voice, miles away from her elven falsetto). For now, like a cinema slasher or b-movie alien, she’s obscured behind a screen; only her shadowy outline is visible. She looks like she could be in the process of inhabiting someone else’s identity, sucking up their vocal style.
‘Circuambient’ means ‘to encompass on all sides’. The thing being encompassed in this case might be popular human music. All of it. You could call it electro-pop but the tag wouldn’t fit. Grimes’ music always sounds like a bad, unfamiliar impression that ends up creating something markedly different. The burbling keys that run through the track sound like a virus metastasising or DNA strains multiplying, mixing together. Soaring ambient swooshes suggest some kind of planetfall, something coming down fast through the atmosphere. Deep in the mix is a rustling crackle, like vinyl being played but not. It’s all a little off-centre, but then the track decides to take its form and a muffled thud gives way to a more familiar boom-bap rattle and then there’s a human voice.
‘Oh, baby, I can’t say that everything is ok.’ Not the most reassuring of starts, but, lyrically, the track soon settles into an elliptically-told story of spurned love and the limitations of our silly penchant for monogamy. More weirdly – and more brilliantly – is the way Grimes’ vocal cuts up, hiccups and echoes through the track, as if, like that virus-y synth, she decided to remodel herself momentarily into a multi-mouthed cipher to achieve a suitably polyphonic effect. Elsewhere she’ll morph her vocal into little propulsive charges or use it provide softening textures. The cliché of the voice as instrumental really comes alive in her music. In Circumambient, the song climaxes around her increasingly feverish and jittering vocal. There are more standard girl-group style accompaniments and croons, but it’s as if she decided half-way through – you think that’s impressive? Check this out!
Hiccupping and cut-up vocals aren’t anything new. When pop historians look back at the noise we were making in the early 21st century, the fractured ‘James Blake effect’ will probably come to mean something profound about the split identities the internet and social media allowed us to adopt or something. But Grimes makes it her own. When she does what she does on this track, it doesn’t feel like a single voice being split up, rather your ear being split up between several voices demanding your attention. Somewhat irreverently, and looping back around to Grimes preternatural quality, what it brings to mind for me is Navi from Zelda: OoT. For those too old or *gasp* too young to be familiar with that reference, Navi was the sidekick – the magical fairy – who existed only to give the player advice and hints. Occasionally she’d get a bit
excited irritating and would buzz spazzily around you, bombarding your ears with a constant barrage of her once-cute exclamations of ‘Hey!’, ‘Listen!’ and occasionally, ‘Hey! Listen!’ delivered in a pixie-ish squeak that Grimes does a good impression of when she sings.
Though her music sounds like she’s multitasking, you’d image it would probably require a couple of studio musicians on the stage with her, but in the flesh Grimes aka Vanessa Boucher is exactly as she first seems: a one-woman band. Crouched keenly over her array of keys and drum machines, she manages the impressive feat of seeming to curate, play and perform her music all in the same instance. Something similar happens on record; though post-internet descriptors might be a little premature, or maybe just a little wrong, Boucher does feel as if she’s a part of a generation (full disclaimer: my generation) for who the gaps between genres were never that pronounced, and decide what to listen to in their 100 GB music collection by surrendering to iTunes shuffle rather than doing anything as gauche as picking a whole album to sit through.