Photo: Courtesy of 4AD Records

Grimes’ ‘Miss Anthropocene’ Watches the World Go Out With a Whimper

Ironically, you may wind up wishing that Grimes' vision of a scorched Earth was a bit more fun.

Miss Anthropocene
21 February 2020

We may have to accept that the future isn’t going to be all that futuristic. No network of flying cars, no interactive holograms, fewer buildings inexplicably shaped like the Seattle Space Needle than we ever imagined. We may have to come to terms with something darker and more banal.

The same might be said of Grimes and her much-anticipated fifth studio album Miss Anthropocene, whose vision of ecological decay and techno-dystopia is unmistakably human. It’s frantic, emotive, and imbued with an impenetrable sense of doom. It’s a boldly atmospheric and experimental offering from a former cult figure operating at new heights of public exposure. But we’re also talking about Grimes, the woman responsible for some of the most inventive and memorable pop music of the last decade. Ironically, you may wind up wishing that her scorched Earth was a bit more, well, fun.

It’s possible that thinking of Grimes as a pop star was a mistake –that her deployment and subversion of pop tropes were merely means to a far more esoteric end. However, this seems unlikely in the context of the vast bulk of Art Angels‘s elevated visual language and surprisingly accessible hooks. Comparing that album’s “Kill V Maim” with any of the crunchier lo-fi hits that precede it betrays a level of mainstream ambition that makes most of Miss Anthropocene‘s deep cuts all the more puzzling: they retreat into themselves, shapeless and hookless. In this way, the album is reminiscent of M.I.A.’s Maya, a knee-jerk response to increased pop recognition, submitting to her least palatable instincts and occasionally striking gold in the process.

“4 ÆM” is one of those gilded moments, a hint at what a complete monster this album could’ve been if it was more committed to soundtracking the apocalyptic meltdown itself, rather than the human apathy Grimes posits it might inspire. It’s Agent Cody Banks Goes Bollywood, the sound of a high-speed chase down a flickering neon highway, chaotic and intense — but most crucially, it boasts the hallmarks of the most definitive Grimes tracks. The snares and kicks are sharp and punchy, the chorus is undeniable, the vocals leap from hypnotic to demonic in an instant (even if the lyrics are indeterminable on the first pass). It’s one of Grimes’ finest songs, point-blank.

It’s cushioned by what are likely the other two best moments on the record. “Violence” is a trancey and sassy banger about a tumultuous relationship with the literal Earth. It doesn’t get much more Grimes than that. “New Gods” spins one of the album’s most compelling concepts into a sparse science fiction hymn that sounds like a Halo cutscene.

That concept on display in “New Gods” — that the old polytheistic gods just aren’t cutting it anymore — more often than not, unfortunately, leads Miss Anthropocene down far less interesting sonic paths. The album seeks to render the necessary deities to account for the needs of the Distraction Age — “Violence” is a vessel for the god of video games, “My Name Is Dark” for political apathy, “Delete Forever” for suicide. There’s something viscerally depressing about that particular dystopian image. Still, for all of the dark places they suggest on paper, the songs themselves rarely break out of a mid-tempo slog that solidifies how much better-suited Grimes is to rioting rather than laying down and letting fate wash over.

“Before the Fever” is particularly indicative of this trapping, a song with such an incessantly droning BPM that it feels too long before you even clear the first minute. Pretending you know all the lyrics to the chorus of your favorite Grimes song has essentially become a rite of passage for every new fan. But the vocal delivery on “Fever” (among several other tracks) becomes so loose that their barely-there hooks fade into the atmosphere to questionable effect. “You’ll miss me when I’m not around” and “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth” lack the sharp vocal precision of similarly structured tracks on Art Angels, leaving their otherwise cathartic and brooding choruses sounding mealy-mouthed at best and half-assed at worst.

When Grimes’s impeccable production skills are given a chance to shine, the ideas behind Miss Anthropocene‘s slow-burners begin to come into focus. “IDORU” emerges from the same eerily synthetic woods as Bjork’s “Tabula Rasa”, and brings dystopian apathy to a far more personal place: “You’re so cool because you don’t think you’re cool / You cannot be sad because you made my all-time favorite music.” One of the most memorable vocal performances of Grimes’s career aside, “Delete Forever’‘ showcases her singular production skills in a grand act of acrobatics to prove that even in a hellish future — against the odds — there is still a place for banjos.

Still, even in these moments, it’s hard not to feel let down when the album’s original lead single “We Appreciate Power” is demoted to bonus track status, a testament to how raucous, evil, and genius Miss Anthropocene was poised to be. A truly brutal, thrashing nu-metal reclamation, “Power” is the sound of an old world being ripped in half, a violent regime change, artificial intelligence accessing your darkest secrets in an instant and lording them over you until you “submit”. “IDORU” and “Delete Forever” stand as successful individual compositions, but they are so lyrically removed from the fantasy world that Grimes’s best work occupies that they subtract from the overall impact of Anthropocene‘s core concept. There’s a compelling darkness to rendering the end of the world as rather prosaic, but there’s certainly room to question whether Grimes is the right person for that particular job.

If an entire album in the vein of “4 ÆM” might’ve come off as disingenuous — too gimmicky or light-hearted to capture the current feeling toward global collapse — “We Appreciate Power” is the true tease of the bunch. It’s still a song about meltdown and apathy, but Grimes is the arbiter, not the subject, and she plays a far more convincing overlord than an underling.

RATING 6 / 10