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Grimes – Miss Anthropocene Review

February 22, 2020 | Posted by David Hayter
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Grimes – Miss Anthropocene Review  

Has there even been a critically acclaimed and universally admired artist who is second-guessed as often as Claire Boucher, aka Grimes? After the runaway success of her ethereal breakthrough single “Vanessa”, the Canadian innovator was routinely dismissed as lightweight and even the most reverent reviews of her third album, Visions, sounded surprised at the complexity and depth of her enternally-looping, quasi-spiritual electro-pop.

With an album of the decade contender under her belt, it would be reasonable to assume that Grimes had earned the benefit of the doubt, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Her 2014 comeback single, “Go”, was slammed as savagely by her own fans as it was by critics and the build up to the release of Art Angels, the album that would eventually cement her legacy at the forefront of pop’s avant garde, was blighted by rumors that her new sound was half-baked.

What makes Boucher unique is that she appears to share her fans’ anxiety. “Go” was an overproduced and lug-headed misstep out of keeping with the album that it would eventually be excluded from. Grimes exudes such a joyful and chaotic aura of unabashed creative freedom, that it is easy to overlook the unease inherent in her music. She might be a demonic pixie-sprite sent to reap Mother Nature’s vengeance on the record industry, but the wild thrills of “V. Kill Maim” or “Venus Fly” obscured the image of a woman who is fundamentally unsure of herself: “The things they see in me, I cannot see myself/When you get bored of me, will I be back on the shelf?”

This is the inherent tension that makes her music so intoxicating. Her “you can be anything out there” ethos leads to albums that toe-the-line between the profound and the immaterial, the pseudo and the intellectual, radiating both good and bad taste. Fans and critics are not wrong to question Grimes’ sense of direction; her polyamourous approach to artistry invites insecurity. No matter how many times she exceeds expectation, the vultures begin to circle and that lingering question comes back to the fore: is this the moment when Grimes finally falls off?

The build up to Miss Anthropocene has been far from smooth. Her relationship with Elon Musk has drawn as many bad headlines as good, culminating in the welcome news of her pregnancy, but the bigger concern has been the music itself. Big, obvious, monotonous, underdeveloped and safe sounding singles have pathed the way for the release of her hotly anticipated fifth studio album. The nu-metal bombast of “We Appreciate Power” raised the most eyebrows. The track certainly wasn’t bad, but it was undeniably basic. Trite, albeit timely, observations about the fate of our planet and our submission to the on-going march of algorithmic automation were goading, but a little too cute for their own good (“plug in, upload your mind, come on, you’re not even alive, if you’re not backed up on a drive”). The sloganeering, quiet-loud, copy + paste dynamics of the arrangements saw Grimes backsliding dangerously close to work of her one dimensional imitators (see I Disagree by Poppy).

Unsurprisingly, Boucher has wielded the axe. “We Appreciate Power” only features as a bonus track on the Japanese edition of Miss Anthropocene, but the same cannot be said of second single “Violence”. The mix may be alluring as Grimes sings with an illusive humane slightness, but the track plods along in first gear showcasing many of Grimes’ signature cloudy sonics without any of malevolent edge or artistic vitality of her best work. “Violence” feels like the building blocks of a great Boucher production stripped of several layers songwriting nuance and compositional unpredictability.

The reason these less than stellar efforts makes the cut is simple. Miss Anthropocene is a loose concept album – or, more precisely, it is the running together of two bold and vaguely metaphorical themes. Anthropocene is a clear and unmistakeable reference to our current geological epoch: the age of planet existence dominated and defined by human influence. Yes that’s right, Grimes has unleashed a climate change opera where she voices a victimized Gaia (or earth). Showcasing her high concept, low taste credentials, the title is also a revealing play on words. The normally effervescent, albeit blood thirsty Grimes has become a misanthrope (Miss Anthrop-ocene): a regular misery guts, questioning her own and humanity’s every decision.

It’s the kind of preposterously brilliant nonsense that leads to beautifully batty songwriting scenarios where Grimes can angelically coo, “you’ll miss me when I’m gone” and be speaking with the voice of both a chronically depressed teenager and our ever changing ecosystem. This intoxicating blend allows Miss Anthropocene to veer wildly between profundity, morose naval gazing, flippant indulgences and melodramatic asides within a single song.

The magnificent “My Name Is Dark (Art Mix”)” captures this hare-brained aesthetic perfectly. Written while listening to The Downward Spiral and clearly inspired by her favorite rock records (“Put on “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” so I can sing along while I break things”), the track is deliciously ridiculous. Grimes leans all the way into her own absurdity. Hitting hymnal high notes while letting slip demonic roars and coquettish low tones, Grimes uncorks some of her most knowingly preposterous lyrics to date (“imminent annihilation sounds so dope”) against a sonic backdrop that feels remarkable like the earth eating itself in reverse. The chorus is otherworldly in its bratty facetiousness: “The boys are such a bore, the girls are such a bore/I never trust the government and pray to God, for sure/I don’t need to sleep anymore, that’s what the drugs are for”.

Is she taking any of this remotely seriously? Are we supposed to? Or is that, in itself, the point? We are all blithely carrying on in our arrested development – revelling in our extended adolescence in a new digital playground while the world burns around us (“Paradise on my right, and hell on my left…unfuck the world, you stupid girl”). Grimes is seemingly unsure as her album flitters between unmistakable heavy long form laments (quasi-dirges) and brisk, peppy, almost performative acts of irreverence.

The result is a series of tracks that work almost exclusively in the context of the album itself. This, rather bizarrely, puts Miss Anthropocene in the position of being her most incoherent album tonally, but her lone work that can only function as a single, start-to-finish, piece of music. There are no stand-alone bangers or obvious club cuts, just 45-minutes of strangely engrossing music.

Album opener, “So Heavy I Fell Through The Earth – Art Mix”, sets the tone. Deep ruminating bass notes grind down the listener with a persistent slowness, while Grimes hauntingly fills the void with Enya-like wailing. This pitilessly heavy slab of electronic instrumentation brings to life a suffocating relationship that is symbiotic and loving in its own way, but nevertheless utterly destructive. Grimes is riding the most brutal of vibes. This totemic heft returns throughout the album, most notably on “Before The Fever”: a sick, suicidal and sludgy act of quasi-seduction (“I can make you feel so wet…I can take your picture, baby”) that sees Grimes dancing to “the sound of the end of the world”, which happens to been a thumping pulse buried deep beneath the surface – echoing the planet’s straining heartbeat.

Elsewhere there is a sense that Grimes is repeating old tricks in less radical forms. 潘PAN hops on board yet again, but rather than riding the elastic rhythms of “Scream”, she plays maniac ghost in the machine on “Darkseid” – a track built on great crashing columns of processed bass. The work feels less radical and certainly less catchy than is predecessor as Grimes embraces a more ambient palette. Were it not for a delicate and illusive run of high notes, the track may have veered too close to Sci-fi parody. It’s clear that Boucher has been influenced by Dennis Villenueve’s haunting cinematic scores and unnerving atmospherics (Arrival, Enemy, Sicario), but great stand-alone pop music needs a gear change to truly flourish.

What’s remarkable is how thoroughly this looming weight of cinematic grief has infected even the album’s lightest and brightest moments. “Delete Forever” opens with the kind of peppery acoustic guitar that underwrote some of Art Angels’ most joyous moments, but rather than blossoming into an iridescent pop song, the mood is dragged down by the sheer density of Grimes’ sound. This striking contrast is a product of the song’s subject matter; “Delete Forever” is a reflection on the American opioid epidemic. Grimes and her friends are being sucked away into a depressive malaise as they chase a fleeting high and the music is bittersweet as a result: “Always down when I’m not up, guess it’s just my rotten luck…But I can’t see above it, guess I fucking love it, but oh, I didn’t mean to”.

“IDORU” is perhaps the only uniformly blissful offering, but even this seven-minute ode to loving unity and obsession hints a deeper anxiety. “Even though we’re gonna lose… I adore you”. There is a fatalism that permeates this surreal shape shifting suite that at times feels like a love letter to Elon Musk, the planet earth and a reflection on how fans project happiness onto their musical heroes (“You cannot be sad, because you made my all time favorite music”). Somehow a track that angelically coos “I adore you” ends up feeling like a requiem. In the past this track would have had an airy, doolally energy, instead the most undeniably upbeat effort on Miss Anthropocene offers a clunky, funereal heft.

“IDORU” provides a fitting finale for an album that spends much of its run time ruminating and vibing in an intoxicating middle ground. Even when a rave threatens to break out on “4AM”, it feels like mere window dressing for something darker. Unsurprisingly, “New God” follows: a severe ballad that nearly drifts into Bond theme territory were it not for its echo-laden and deliciously droll pre-chorus (“I wear black eyeliner, black attire, yeah/So take me higher and higher”). Grimes is conflicted yet again, here she is mourning a world that burns in the age of our new gods (plastic and pollution), but elsewhere she coyly jokes that our earthly destruction would make a great Instagram pic.

This is the fundamental contradiction that makes Miss Anthropocene so intoxicating. It might be an album made up of the worst songs of Grimes’ career, but as a start-to-finish product it flourishes as a document to our distraction and disregard. We’re too busy having fun, striking poses, taking antidepressants and falling in love to notice the world that is dying around us. Grimes frames the human/Gaia relationship as a love affair and we are the domestic abuser – no one questions our love, only our collective action (or inaction). The joy of Art Angels and the delicacy of Visions still exists, but they have been poisoned and subsumed by an encroaching heaviness. Numbed by opioids and coated in plastic: the original emotion is still recognisably present, it’s merely smothered, slowly suffocating – dying, but not dead yet.

7.5
The final score: review Good
The 411
Miss Anthropocene is a strange beast, made almost exclusively of the weakest material of Grimes' career to date, this climate change and depression epic proves to be an enthralling and intoxicating start-to-finish listen. The sounds of old have been polluted and poisoned by a unrelenting heaviness. Tracks clunk, clamber, pulse and drift as Grimes battles indifference and myriad distractions on this earth loving and planet burning LP.
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Grimes, David Hayter