The pop star strives for artistic credibilty on her unsettling new album.
The transition in these cluttered days of ubiquitous social media is probably measured by the artist going from goofy Instagram pictures to a Guardian profile.
Grimes – 31-year-old Canadian Claire Boucher, who studied Russian literature and neuroscience at Montreal’s McGill University – has always delivered ambitious electronica-cum-R&B pop. These days she's also famous as the pregnant partner of tech mogul Elon Musk.
However, her new album, Miss Anthropocene, sees her elevation towards the pantheon of Important Artists. In a cover as coded as the music, Miss Anthropocene takes its title from an amalgamation of “misanthrope” and the Anthropocene, the epoch in which humans began to directly affect Earth’s ecosystems.
These are big references and this, Grimes’ fifth album, opens with the stentorian gloom and gloriously disorientating six minutes of So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth. It signals a desire for gravitas. What follows are staccato drum programmes, heavily echoed sonic effects, disembodied voices, Taiwanese rapper PAN’s vocal sped up on Darkseid to convey desperation (but in Japanese) and some vague concept of a nihilistic Earth goddess. It all adds up to an experimental album to be taken seriously.
Grimes also includes indie guitar pop (Delete Forever) and banging drum’n’bass on 4AM, which invokes the ancient Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, and has weirdly exotic samples appropriated from the Bollywood blockbuster Bajirao Mastani. However, these tracks are the least effective in this otherwise compelling brew, which mixes her elusive concept with equally demanding personal concerns. The bruising, beat-driven Violence features ambiguous lyrics such as “I’m like begging for it, baby … Cause you, ha, ha, you feed off hurting me”.
Sexuality and higher powers are explored on mesmerising ballad New Gods: “The world is a sad place, baby/Only brand new gods can save me.” Bleak lyrics about self harm dominate You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around and My Name Is Dark welcomes an impending apocalypse – “We party when the sun goes low, imminent annihilation sounds so dope” – but also delivers a sense of ennui and a despairing need for belief: “The boys are such a bore, the girls are such a bore./I never trust the government and pray to God, for sure.”
The elevated, airy techno-pop of the seven-minute IDORU at the end of the album is a glimmer of hope after a journey through the universal and individual shadowlands.
Grimes sounds as confused as anyone these days, but that’s what makes Miss Anthropocene her major statement. It doesn’t quite make her An Important Artist, but it’s certainly uneasy listening for those who feel they just weren’t made for these times.
MISS ANTHROPOCENE, Grimes (4AD/Rhythmethod)
This article was first published in the March 14, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.