The first big disappointment of the year. Grimes has gone from strength to strength and got better with every album, but it couldn’t have lasted forever. Could it?
It’s a little saddening to have followed her progress from the dense, insular electronic noises of Visions to the crowded, thrillingly catchy flights of fancy of Art Angels… to this. Miss Anthropocene is by no means terrible; it’s not as messy a fall from grace as Arcade Fire’s Everything Now, for instance. But its nu metal influenced trudge is certainly a disappointment after the fleet-footed electropop of Art Angels in particular, as that album, so crowded with wonders, was easily one of the best albums of the last decade.
Miss Anthropocene is the sound of the slow, confused crawl through the Trump years towards possible human extinction. Its more plodding beats and depressive industrial-style synths, clearly influenced by Nine Inch Nails, are not by accident. They summon up a gloomy air, a resolutely downbeat atmosphere around them, which makes sense given the album’s concept, its titular character, is an “anthropomorphic goddess of climate change”. Human extinction is a very real possibility thanks to this evil goddess, apparently modelled on comic book villains such as the Joker and Thanos; anthropomorphising her supposedly makes her easier to understand, but you’ll be forgiven for being as mystified as to who she’s supposed to be at the end of the album as you were at the beginning.
The lyrics in general are often cryptic and hard to understand – and not just the ones in Chinese (“Darkseid” features a decent return from Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, who appeared on Art Angels’ “SCREAM”, now called 潘PAN). Part of the trouble is weak enunciation: scroll down to the comments on the Genius pages for each of the songs and you’ll find arguments about what exactly Grimes is singing, and links to corrections to the lyrics from Grimes herself. But mainly the issue is the inscrutability of the concepts. I’d have no idea that “My Name is Dark” was about “fighting Balrog in the center of the earth” or that it was a “sex metaphor” were it not for seeing Grimes’ comment on it; and learning that information doesn’t offer much help for decoding the lyrics, which includes a chorus that goes “The boys are such a bore, the girls are such a bore.” Similarly, there was little clue that “Delete Forever” was about Lil Peep’s death, bar a couple of drug references.
More effective are the coded personal songs. “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth” might be as musically cumbersome as its title, and it has little need to stretch to over 6 minutes, yet the central theme is clearly enough about her pregnancy. The reason that she’s so heavy that she fell through the earth? “Cause I fucking love” and “Cause I’m full of love from you”. That’s a pretty touching way to talk about the reciprocal love with her soon-to-be new-born, never mind the expletive. However, could it be that she’s singing about being full of the love from her beau Elon Musk? The final track “IDORU” raises that possibility, a straightforward love song that’s a clear middle finger up to all the people who’ve been rude about her choice of romantic partner. It would be one of her career-best songs, if only she hadn’t felt the need to stretch it needlessly to over 7 minutes.
Miss Anthropocene is like that: small victories get overtaken by larger bad choices. The production on the album is particularly annoying, a classic example of “brickwalling”, with all of the layers of sound maxed out into a mono-crunch without range or subtlety. Art Angels could be accused of the same problem, however its superior, more detailed songwriting helped to divert attention away from this. Miss Anthropocene’s less interesting musicality, particularly the dull thud of its beats, draws attention to the brickwalling and make the whole experience that much less enjoyable.
There are exceptions: “4Æm” utilises a Bollywood sample, multi-tracked vocals and a drum n’ bass loop on its chorus to create the rare adrenaline rush here (these types of rushes were all over Art Angels). “Violence” is a pretty good single, even if its acoustic strumming gets boring quickly. And the aforementioned “IDORU” creates a convincing romantic atmosphere thanks to its use of the mellotron.
But those highpoints really aren’t as much as we might have expected in 5 years from one of the most creative voices in music. Rumour has it that her next project is a techno pop record made with a range of different producers; now that sounds more promising.