‘Miss Anthropocene’ Is Excellent, If You Ignore Everything Grimes Has Said About It

Buried underneath the album's pseudo-concept about climate change is some of Grimes' most inward-facing, darkest, and best music yet.

Grimes album review photo

Grimes has repeatedly taken umbrage at being quoted ‘out of context’ during her current press tour, but it’s probably the kindest thing you could do for Miss Anthropocene, her fifth album. It’s also — at the time of release, at least — nearly impossible to do.

Over the past two years, the Canadian alt-pop star has transformed from indie darling to tabloid fixture after debuting her relationship with technocrat Elon Musk at the 2018 Met Gala. And while it’s frustrating how much that relationship overshadows her music, it is, unfortunately, the perfect lens to view it through.

Cuddling up to the controversial Musk — a tech magnate who identified as “socially progressive, fiscally conservative” and has repeatedly worked against attempts for Tesla workers to unionise — was a far cry for Claire Boucher, the artist who used to blog passionately about class and wealth.

And while some might’ve been willing to separate the art and artist from the relationship, fans soon realised Boucher had removed the term “anti-imperialist” from her Twitter bio.

It was a death-knell, one that wasn’t helped by Boucher’s defence — not of herself (though she did claim the term had been long-gone from her bio prior to their relationship), but of Musk. Before long, she was tweeting that Tesla employees simply didn’t want to unionise: she’d even gone to meet them to sign them up herself.

Since then, there’s been a myriad of cringe-inducing headlines, ranging from the Azealia Banks-saga (which saw Musk investigated for fraud, no less) to Boucher saying she wanted to change her name legally to c, italics and all, to reference the speed of light.

Unfortunately, there’s a fair few similarities between Grimes’ relationship with Musk, a billionaire who ‘invented’ a bus and will start a Mars colony to protect us from the climate crisis, and Miss Anthropocene, an album written loosely from the perspective of a climate change goddess wreaking havoc upon the humans who have wrecked the Earth.

‘Miss Anthropocene’ is barely present on the album beyond the aesthetic and nu-metal doomsday soundscape.

Despite a seven-month press cycle hyping Grimes’ new alter-ego, the titular ‘Miss Anthropocene’, the character is barely present on the album beyond the aesthetic and nu-metal doomsday soundscape. Much like Musk’s benevolent colonial expansion of his company into space, Miss Anthropocene is largely self-interested.

This is far from a bad thing by itself, but it’s hard to ignore its self-righteous tone. Drawing parallels between your own misanthropy and mother nature isn’t eco-feminism; it’s solipsistic. It’s about as privileged as wandering into your boyfriend’s tech company with a union sheet and wondering why no one signed up. At your most critical, you could call Miss Anthropocene out-of-touch. Then again, Grimes has always been celestial, and the album’s best when it floats free from its conceptual cage.

As frustrating as Miss Anthropocene can be (read: as Grimes can be) beneath the aesthetic is some of Boucher’s best work. It’s her most inward-facing, darkest work yet, even more so than 2012’s Visions, largely written in reference to a violent assault.

Oh, Look What You Made Grimes Do

As her sound evolved with each album, Claire Boucher has remained distinctly weird, if not oft-indecipherable in her songs. The oddities — her pixie voice, the video game synths, the song titles — always felt central to the music, rather than mere flourishes: the otherworldly has always worked in Boucher’s favour.

Much like her Tumblr, which is where Boucher first found an audience, the Grimes persona is a carefully curated blend of influences and sounds, ranging from cult sci-fi to K-pop, Marxism to Britney Spears. While this has become a given in 2020, it was still a novelty at the turn of the last decade, to the point that critics created a term to define Grimes’ music: “post-internet“.

Synthesising your own misanthropy with mother nature isn’t eco-feminism; it’s solipsistic. It’s about as privileged as wandering into your boyfriend’s tech company with a union sheet and wondering why no one signed up.

But where Boucher’s penchant for following sounds and concepts down the rabbit hole might’ve once worked, Miss Anthropocene, as a whole, loses the light in the tunnel. Prior to release, Boucher told Wall Street Journal she wanted the album to “make climate change fun”, a poorly-worded quote that was immediately derided, somewhat unfairly. She’d later clarify — as was self-evident — that she meant she wanted to tackle climate change from a different, more engaging perspective.

And Miss Anthropocene does come from a different perspective: except for a straight (and fairly boring) ballad called ‘New Gods’, the album barely makes clear reference to its concept. Fragments are here and there, but the album’s more interested in the apocalyptic tone than engaging with it.

Instead, hurt characterises the album, even when it, in theory, shouldn’t. Opener ‘So Heavy I Fell Through The Earth’ transforms love into a weight that sees Grimes plummet, the music’s six-minute breath-y, ’90s-trance breakdown obfuscating the violence. As a result, it’s beautiful-boring — as with much of Miss Anthropocene, your mileage varies on how much leeway you have to offer.

On Instagram post album release, Boucher’s expanded further on its mythology, giving each song a corresponding demon or god. ‘So Heavy…’ is the demon of gender: Boucher’s previously said the song’s about the way heterosexual relationships tie you down, or, in her own words, “Specifically how when a dude cums inside you, you become in their thrall”. Love and resentment intertwine, caught in a web of interpersonal politics — in her Journal interview, she groaned when Musk’s name was mentioned, “out of, I don’t know, feminism”.

Bordering on nu-metal ambience, the song’s just the three feelings Grimes recently told Zane Lowe she wrote the album from — ‘negativity, aggression, isolation’ — quietly thrashing against each other, like thunder in the distance. Yet the song’s ethereal loops circle themselves without answer, with Boucher taking the chance to stay in free-fall.

It sets up what the album really is: not musings on climate change, but a post-fame album, one where Boucher trawls through the wasteland of finding love (and in a few months, having a child) with someone many fans think of as the enemy.

Still, We’ll Miss Her When She’s Gone

The omission of ‘We Appreciate Power’, Grimes’ first post-Grusk track, from the album, is curious. In classic Grimes style, it was written from the perspective of a future girl group, creating pro-A.I. pop music as a propaganda, inspired by North Korea’s own K-Pop group, Moranbong.

“Simply by listening to this song,” a release accompanying it read, “the future General AI overlords will see that you’ve supported their message and be less likely to delete your offspring.”

Over-the-top and ominous, ‘We Appreciate Power’ includes lines like “we pledge allegiance to the computer” and a marching-line chorus. It pushed forward the aggression found across Art Angels, and played with Musk’s ‘super-villain’ persona without ever directly referencing it. While it’s just as ridiculous as any concept found on Miss Anthropocene, it’s as savvy and tongue-in-cheek as ‘Kill V. Maim’ or ‘Venus Fly’, two Art Angels highlights that combine video game-electronica with industrial aggression.

Grimes isn’t just clever: she’s funny, and at its worst, Miss Anthropocene forgets that. ‘We Appreciate Power’s relegation to the deluxe edition is proof that the album was over-thought (plus, it’s such an excellent counterpoint to ‘Violence’).

Perhaps its fine to ignore the concept anyway, as Boucher has always been best on the granular, un-tangling her bizarre production beat-by-beat. For this, ‘4ÆM’ is a highlight, a ’90s trance song where the chorus is Grimes chanting maniacally — it sounds like a wired brain late-at-night, every thought arriving at once.

Still, the album’s finest moment is also its most unexpected. ‘Delete Everything’ is arguably one of Boucher’s simplest releases, a  guitar ballad written the night of rapper Lil Peep’s overdose, inspired by her many friends who have died from opioid addiction.

Clean-cut, Boucher’s devastation rings through — as does her anger, which works against the album’s angst. The song’s adorned with space-age synths and horn lines, but isn’t terribly ornate. Instead, the small flourishes become pangs of pain making way for the song’s hummed bridge: a wordless, resigned acceptance of loss. It’s a moment where Grimes stops trying so hard to be Grimes, and just writes as she feels. Despite its morose subject (or, in fact, because of it), ‘Delete Everything’ is the album’s warmest track.

Close behind is album closer ‘IDORU’, a devotional beginning with chirping birds, a clear sign we’re out of the darkness, with Boucher rising up after falling through the Earth. On it, she sings about a lover making her favourite music. It’s a message as much to herself as her fans: Grimes is still here, if you can ignore the noise.

Miss Anthropocene instead hides behind an aesthetic, and becomes at once Grimes’ most intimate record and most bloated.

In her review, Guardian music critic Laura Snapes compares Miss Anthropocene to Taylor Swift’s reputation, two albums which dive into their artists’ own cultural reception, reclaiming the villain role they’d been thrust into. But where Swift played snake, Boucher revels in darkness — to the point of occasionally sounding like a LiveJournal teen, as she does on ‘My Name Is Dark’.

While reputation is far from subtle, at least it was honest about its intentions. Miss Anthropocene instead hides behind an aesthetic, and becomes at once Grimes’ most intimate record and most bloated. Time and time again, its pseudo-concept gets in the way of what lies underneath — ignoring it completely is the way to go, which means skipping self-serious songs like ‘Before the fever’ and ‘New Gods’.

But perhaps the framework gave Grimes the breathing room to write and distance herself, in a time where her music is exhaustibly tied to her life in large. Miss Anthropocene is mid-bloom (or mid-decay, if you want to use the album’s language), and not completely ready, for understandable reasons, to face the sun.

Grimes’ fifth album Miss Anthropocene is out now, via 4AD/Remote Control Records.

Jared Richards is Junkee’s Night Editor, and freelances from Berlin. Find him on Twitter.