“I see myself as a visual artist first and foremost, and I’ve always felt strange that people know me for music.” — Grimes, in a 2020 interview with Bloomberg
Grimes, born Claire Elise Boucher, is a lot of things. One moniker we can settle on for sure: She is an artist. One who works across mediums, blending the visual, musical and more to create a persona that looks like performance art. In 2020, she debuted her first fine art show, Selling Out, containing pieces she’s made over the last decade. The title piece from that show literally offers up a piece of her soul, sold via legal document. Last year, she sold $6 million worth of digital art in the form of NFTs. In 2022, she’s crowdsourcing opinions on her next album cover:
I can’t tell which of these is my album cover 🧐 all thots welcome pic.twitter.com/y6O99Enetg— 𝔊𝔯𝔦𝔪𝔢𝔰 (⌛️,⏳) ᚷᚱᛁᛗᛖᛋ (@Grimezsz) January 5, 2022
But before all of the success and infamy, Grimes — after releasing Geidi Primes and Halfaxa and contributing to Darkbloom — got signed to 4AD in January 2012 and started working on Visions, the record that would be her breakthrough and make her a critical darling.
It’s well-documented that the process behind Visions consisted of a few weeks’ confinement in Boucher’s Montreal apartment, with more amphetamines than food and little sleep or contact with other people. For a record that was deadline-driven and frenetic, the album artwork — designed by Grimes (although the purple alien head is credited to artist Mark Khair) and laid out by Jasper Baydala — is fittingly chaotic and multifaceted.
The main component of the cover is the skull-centric painting by Grimes. “I painted that while [I was] watching [Gaspar Noé’s 2009 film] Enter the Void, and I was just having a terrible time,” she told Exberliner, “It was like the day after and I was just trying to watch horrible movies. So the drawing… I wanted it to be kind of like a Bosch painting: very modern, but kind of reminiscent of surreal medieval shit.”
The purple column of text is just “Grimes” over and over again. The alien head makes a small cameo appearance on the front cover, and appears prominently on the back. Within the painting, the line across the top reads “I love” in Russian, while the vertical lines of text that resemble Japanese scripts are meaningless.
There is additional text in Russian on the cover, excerpting two poems by Anna Akhmatova. Boucher explained in an interview, “My grandma’s Ukrainian, and because my parents worked a lot I basically grew up with my grandparents, hearing Russian spoken a lot.” She described the poems excerpted as “two different approaches to death,” and added, “I kind of identified with [Akhmatova] — she wrote a lot of poems about being a girl in the scene, all that shit. She’s a pretty cool lady. I also just wanted to put some writing on the cover, because I like the way fonts look.”
The first two lines of poetry that appear on the upper right of the album cover — the opening two lines of Akhmatova’s poem “But Listen, I Am Warning You” — translate to: “But listen, I am warning you / I’m living for the very last time.” The four lines of Russian text on the bottom right of the album cover are a complete stanza taken from Akhmatova’s poem, “The Song of the Last Meeting.” There are multiple conflicting translations, but as translated by Judith Hemschemeyer (reproduced in Peter Schakel and Jack Ridl’s Approaching Literature: Reading & Thinking), it reads: “I am betrayed by my doleful, / Fickle, evil fate. / I answered: “Darling, darling! / I too. I will die with you…”
These are two perspectives on death: one spiteful and solitary, the other mournful and with a lover. “But Listen, I Am Warning You” seems more closely aligned with Grimes’ headspace at the time, creating frantically and alone, but “The Song of the Last Meeting,” about the end of an affair, has ties to tracks like “Skin”; in the Listening Notes for the VMP edition of Visions, Boucher reflected on that song as an expression of heartbreak and “teenage angst.”
Those exclusive Listening Notes — available only in print booklet form in the VMP edition of Visions — were written by Grimes in September of 2021, providing insight into each track and reflecting on the record. VMP Art Director & Designer Clay Conder designed the booklet, with the cover art as visual inspiration. The results, excerpted above, are a scrawled and doodled representation of the method behind the madness on the album.
Grimes herself created the art print for the VMP edition of the record, which Conder used as an additional point of artistic reference. All Records of the Month for VMP Essentials come with a companion art print, but it’s rare for so much of the package to be personally created by the artist themself. But in Grimes’ case, the visuals have always been inseparable from the music — it’s all one artistic vision.
Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based writer and the former Editor of VMP. If she had to be a different kind of berry, she’d pick strawberry.