It’s hard to take anything Grimes says seriously. Over the last few months, she’s joked (?) about getting experimental eye surgery so that she can’t see blue light, she’s said that she didn’t Google pregnancy before deciding “sure y not,” and she’s gotten into a heated debate about retiring from touring and having a hologram perform in her place. A year ago, when she first announced her new album Miss Anthropocene, she said that she wanted to “make climate change fun” and described it like this:
It’s a concept album about the anthropomorphic Goddess of climate Change: A psychedelic, space-dwelling demon/ beauty-Queen who relishes the end of the world. She’s composed of Ivory and Oil. Each song will be a different embodiment of human extinction as depicted through a Pop star Demonology.
What the hell does that even mean? Who knows! Little of what Grimes says her album is about is evident when listening to Miss Anthropocene by itself. But then again, this is the same person who once said that one of her best songs was written from the perspective of Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II “except that he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space.” Like I said, it’s hard to take what Grimes says seriously.
But however Grimes conceives of her songs and how they come across to the listener has always tended to exist in two entirely different universes. So if Grimes says that Miss Anthropocene is some sweepingly elaborate climate change concept album, I’m sure it is that to her. There is indeed a pervasive sense of doom throughout, an end-times mania that’s met with debauchery and bursts of anxiety. But whether there’s some intricately linked goddess Miss Anthropocene guiding over it all? That I can’t attest to.
There has always been a disconnect between what Grimes says in her interviews and social media posts and the music that she puts out, and that divide has only gotten more stark as Claire Boucher has entered into the world of celebrity and artifice. A decade ago, if you had told me that the reclusive Canadian weirdo who made Geidi Primes and Halfaxa would become a regular in People and Us Weekly, I probably would have started a climate apocalypse all on my own. But that’s where Grimes exists in 2020: She’s dating a famous tech plutocrat, she’s at the center of conspiracy theories from both the right and the left. I can’t pretend to understand what Grimes is going through. It must be a lot. There are valid criticisms that Grimes is too far gone (as Zola Jesus put it: she’s “the voice of Silicon fascist privilege”), but her music remains frustratingly and fascinatingly brilliant, exhibiting a sensitivity that’s often at odds with whatever Grimes does in the public sphere.
Ideas that would make little sense tumbling from her mouth in an interview setting are lucid and crystallized in her songs. She seems to be mostly aware of this fact. “I’m not shy but I refuse to speak/ Because I don’t trust you to understand me,” she sings on one song, a line she says she probably wrote after a bad press day. But there are a lot of moments on Miss Anthropocene that speak for themselves, moments that I think anyone who is growing up and staring down the end of the world would be able to understand. And while not all of us have the means to jet away from Earth on a SpaceX shuttle, I can relate to the exhausting paranoia on “4ÆM,” an interior club banger for those late nights when your brain is pulsing with possibilities — those possibilities being death, disease, and total annihilation. “You’re gonna get sick, you don’t know when,” Grimes chirps in the chorus. “They never doubt it at 4AM.”
Grimes spends a lot of time freaked out in the early hours on Miss Anthropocene. “Lying awake, things I can’t escape,” she admits in the opening lines of “Delete Forever,” which was influenced by the opioid epidemic and written following the death of Lil Peep from an accidental overdose. “Funny how they think us naïve when we’re on the brink/ Innocence was fleeting like a season,” she sings later in the song, with a haunting country twang. “Cannot comprehend, lost so many men/ Lately, all their ghosts turn to reasons and excuses.” On “My Name Is Dark,” she sings, “I don’t go to sleep anymore,” putting pressure on herself to fix everything: “Un-fuck the world, you stupid girl.”
Despite her words to the contrary, climate change and the apocalypse sound anything but fun in her hands. Miss Anthropocene’s sonics are all dark and constrained, clanking and blown-out beats and breakdowns that swirl in sludge. Its languid penultimate track, “Before The Fever,” has her singing about “the sound of the end of the world” on top of a booming bass that evokes buildings burning and collapsing in slow-motion. The sounds on the album are pulled from nu-metal and ’90s alternative rock — one of the songs references “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” by name. There are a lot of chainsaw guitars and scratchy acoustic guitars; there are gothic chants and frantic whispers and eardrum-bleeding shrieks.
A lot of it feels like video game music, which Grimes was clearly aiming for, music to soundtrack writhing holographic bodies in the club. Even the dance tracks are still ugly and smeary, though, and contain choruses that feel pointedly dystopian. “You feed off hurting me,” she sings on “Violence,” seemingly talking from the perspective of an Earth that has reached its limit. “Unrest is in the soul/ We don’t move our bodies anymore,” she murmurs on “Darkseid,” a song named after a DC comic book supervillain. It’s an ominous sentiment for a future when we no longer need to move to exist, when we’re so plugged-in that we completely fall out.
Grimes has always been a tinkerer and these songs sound worked over to the extreme — she said she put in 100 hours alone on making “My Name Is Dark.” Sometimes she gets in her own way. There are a lot of moving parts, and where on Art Angels she piled layer on top of layer to create something that was giddily precise, these songs are less exacting, spread out and occasionally meandering. “New Gods,” “IDORU,” and “So Heavy I Fell Through The Earth” all fall victim to that to varying extents. There are cool parts on each, but none of them completely come together. Art Angels didn’t let up for a second, where Miss Anthropocene has some bits that are easy to tune out.
When Art Angels came out, it felt immediately overwhelming. Our Premature Evaluation was indeed premature, reacting to songs in real-time because Grimes unleashed it onto the world as a near-surprise. In comparison, the rollout for Miss Anthropocene has been dragged out for over a year. (And let’s be honest: If you wanted to hear Miss Anthropocene before this week, it leaked over three months ago.) There aren’t a lot of surprises to Miss Anthropocene at this point, and maybe Grimes lucked out a little bit, because the album isn’t as immediately overwhelming as Art Angels. It’s a grower.
And despite all the extracurricular bullshit that Grimes has engaged in over the last few years, there are moments of purity on Miss Anthropocene that make me hope that not all is lost for Grimes, that this artist whose music I’ve taken comfort in so much over the years isn’t too far gone to get back in touch with reality. She’s not as flippant about the apocalypse as she might seem; the prevailing mood of Miss Anthropocene is extremely stressed-out.
And she also seems to be pretty happy in some respects — there’s a gooey love undercurrent to a lot of these songs, even in the face of oblivion. That the love she’s singing about happens to be with someone inconceivably rich is certainly something to keep in mind. “So heavy, I fell through the earth/ Cus I’m full of love from you,” goes one. “I wanna play a beautiful game/ Even though we’re gonna lose/ But I adore you,” she sings on the closing track amid a twitter of birdsong and airy glee that mirrors her previous album’s closing track, “Butterfly.”
“You cannot be sad/ Because you made my all-time favorite music,” she also sings on that one. That line and “You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around” are as self-reflective as Grimes gets on Miss Anthropocene. The latter is an intoxicating burble in which she envisions her own death and tries to revive herself at the same time. “If they could see me now, smiling six feet underground/ I’ll tie my feet to rocks and drown,” she sings. “You’ll miss me when I’m not around.” She’s probably right about that last part.
Miss Anthropocene is out 2/21 via 4AD.