Grimes – Miss Anthropocene

Grimes' fifth album Miss Anthropocene is uneven, gloomy and baffling, and yet contains enough of her magic to remain an enthralling listen

Album Review by Tony Inglis | 21 Feb 2020
  • Grimes – Miss Anthropocene
Album title: Miss Anthropocene
Artist: Grimes
Label: 4AD
Release date: 21 Feb

Few artists have so unrelentingly vacuumed up the collective goodwill they have garnered from critics and fans quite like Grimes.

There was her – let’s say poorly received – coupling up with self-proclaimed paedo ouster, Tesla CEO and budding EDM star Elon Musk, and with it her bizarre pivot to extolling the virtues of capitalism. Then there was her announcement that she no longer wanted to be referred to by her given name Claire Boucher, but simply as ‘c’. Throw in accusations of bullying by a collaborating artist, a sci-fi keep fit routine, her Cronenbergian pregnancy announcement, and the ultimately debunked, but entirely believable, reports that she’d created a social media avatar for her unborn child, and you could say that Grimes is, as one might say in Glasgow, a bit of a rocket.

Maybe she always was; many famous pop figures are. But there’s something about even the smallest of these eccentric behaviours that really sends eyes rolling. Take this portion of an Interview magazine conversation between her and Lana Del Rey:

Grimes: Hey, Lana. How’s it going?

Lana Del Rey: Good! Who is on with us?

Elon Musk: I’m here.

Grimes: E is here.

Musk: Hey, Lana. It’s Elon. I’m about to leave.

Grimes: He’s about to leave. He will not observe. 

Doesn’t that just make you want to vacate your skin? What should be an innocuous exchange comes across as teeth-grindingly awkward.

So, after all that, we're now faced with the prospect of a new Grimes album, the announcement of which was chaotic and baffling in itself. A concept album about an anthropomorphised goddess of climate change and a vow to “make climate change fun”. It remainds unclear why you would want to make one of the greatest existential dangers to humanity and all living species, and the gravest threat to the future of planet earth, fun. But OK.

Strangely, despite that raison d'être, one of the most striking things about Miss Anthropocene is its long stretches absent of fun, of a joyousness that pervaded even Grimes’ darkest thoughts and beats. There is nothing on this record that comes close to the cartoonish character acting of Kill V. Maim. Nothing here is as playful and unpredictable as Oblivion, a bleak song about the looming threat of sexual violence that still manages, through deft pop production and a simple, clever video, to assert power with a lightness of touch.

Miss Anthropocene hues gloomier. Its scene-setter So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth is one long, sludgy vibe that paints the record in a swirling blackness with its foreboding, reverberating, foghorn bass. It’s the beginning of a recurring motif throughout these songs of oblique references to love as a deformity, or causing physical pain and stress. On this track, the narrator is swollen, 'full of love from you'. Grimes returns to this on Violence, a song that on the face of it seems to be a troubling account of taking ownership of abuse. The lyrics are not subtle. 'I'm, like, begging for it baby', she chirps in her distinctive sardonic lilt, and later: 'You wanna make me bad, pay me back / Said I like it like that'. It teeters on the cliff edge, but in the context of the concept of pounding the environment into a submission there’s no coming back from, it kind of works. 

How far you run with Grimes’ heavy-handed approach to the overall thematic direction of the record relies on how surprising and engaging her production is – and it is both, in spades. Where she went long and thudding on the opener, My Name is Dark is industrial electro at its best. On the second chorus, it's impossible not to be lost in its satisfyingly physical and enveloping sequenced cacophony, even when her words are so purposefully provocative ('I never trust the government... / I don’t need to sleep anymore / That’s what the drugs are for') or obnoxious ('Imminent annihilation sounds so dope').

There are so many wild sonic choices on Miss Anthropocene that cement Grimes’ position as an unrivalled musical thinker, willing to produce sounds that move from whimsy to severity, via layered scattershot drumming, within single songs. The dopamine rush-inducing beats of Violence, and the video game drum and bass of 4ÆM, are dazzling.

And then there’s Delete Forever, a song supposedly about Lil Peep and opioid deaths (a sentiment that, at best, straddles the boundaries of good taste) that is also Wonderwall as played by Pinegrove and Avril Lavigne. It’s about as straightforward a pop song as Grimes has put her name to, and continues her fascination with mucking around with guitars. In the course of this quite weightily-intended record – a weight it rarely justifies – Delete Forever is light-hearted, baffling and a welcome, silly respite. Peppy pop-punk is revisited deep into the album’s second half on the knowing You’ll miss me when I’m not around, and it’s a sound Grimes is familiar with and wears well. Its sodden lyrics have Grimes contemplating death – it could be the personification of the Earth again, or perhaps she’s coming to terms with the fact she is a bona fide celebrity now, risking image death on a daily basis.

Miss Anthropocene is an uneven record, and one that arrives with considerable baggage that threatens to turn it into a punching bag. But Grimes' proven abilities as a producer win out. There are superfluous, overlong passages, especially when the brightness in her music drains away – it’s a mercy that the pre-album nu-metal dirge We Appreciate Power didn’t make the cut. But the breakneck highs that arrive as unexpectedly as a brainfreeze make it worthwhile. 'This is the sound of the end of the world', sings Grimes on Before the fever. When she’s at her best, few are more deserving of scoring our inevitable demise.

Listen to: My Name is Dark, Violence, Delete Forever