album review

Is Grimes an Anti-Hero or Villain?

Miss Anthropocene is peak Grimes, a concept album anthropomorphizing climate change as a vengeful spirit with an ax to grind. Photo: YouTube

Grimes is the archetypal modern internet citizen. She’s heard all the right records. She’s seen all the right films. She has great taste in video games and anime. She reads a lot and studies language and history. She has lofty ideas about where tech is headed. She got serious about wokeness and poptimism early on, but hates being defined by those qualities. She’s an oversharer who sometimes regrets ever having said anything. She built a platform out of persistence, talent, and eccentricity and then painstakingly turned it into a successful business. That’s the dream of the internet creative: sticking to your guns and finding your audience, speaking your mind without being bought or compromised, selling art without “selling out.”

Grimes’s principal gift as a songwriter is making high concepts seem low stakes. “Kill v. Maim,” off 2015’s Art Angels, rolled questions about justice and masculinity, and iconography on loan from video games and horror flicks, into a glossy song and video you could receive at face level as a dance-pop banger with a killer cheerleader chorus, or overthink as a story about a gender-bending vampire gangster on the run. You can enjoy Visions’ “Genesis” as delicious dark wave with Cocteau Twins–style caterwauling and a video where the singer tears through the West Coast wastes alongside singer-rapper Brooke Candy, or you can dive into the medieval paintings and concepts in Catholicism that inspired the record. Grimes is an aesthete and a channeler. She studies thoughtful art and then makes more thoughtful art about it.

This month’s Miss Anthropocene is peak Grimes, a concept album anthropomorphizing climate change as a vengeful spirit with an ax to grind. The “Miss” in question is “a psychedelic, space-dwelling demon / beauty-queen who relishes the end of the world,” the artist noted on Instagram last year. “Each song will be a different embodiment of human extinction as depicted through a pop star demonology.” Now, ask a musician about the new album before it’s finished, and you’re likely to get a lot of thought process that might not necessarily make the final cut, if you get a solid answer at all. As a concept album, Miss Anthropocene struggles to live up to its admittedly lofty mission statements. But as a timely turn toward more gothic textures and a nod to the darkly majestic back catalogue of Grimes’s label 4AD — who released the classic Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, and This Mortal Coil albums from the ’80s — the new album is much more of a strong statement.

From the opener, “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth,” Miss Anthropocene hews darker and denser than Art Angels. The singer’s voice is again submerged under milky guitars, strings, and synths. But the lyrics are tougher to make out than last time. So much so, in an era where pop albums as divergent in tone as Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! and Taylor Swift’s Lover make damn sure the vocal is neat and easily discernible, that Anthropocene’s burying of Grimes’s voice feels like a kind of purposeful act of ego death. This suppression might be the finest expression of the album’s concept, a dramatization of what’ll happen to humanity when we meddle too much with the environment and the ice caps finish melting. It also masks the fact that the words aren’t always as sharp as the thoughts behind them. Seeing the singer light up talking about swords, fashion, and artificial intelligence in discussion of the “Violence” video is more fun than leaning in and listening to four minutes of her intoning “You wanna make me bad?” and “Baby, it’s violence!” “4Æm” is mostly a reminder of what time it is; the majority of the words in “So Heavy” are about being very, very heavy and falling through the earth. (Why’d she fall? “’Cause I fucking love.”)

Underneath these simple, mantralike lines lies some of the finest production of Grimes’s career. “So Heavy” serves sensual, syrupy trip-hop, like Sarah McLachlan’s heady 1993 siren song “Possession.” “My Name Is Dark” imagines the slowed + reverb kids getting their hands on “Kill v. Maim”; it’s just as catchy, though notably more ghoulish, a subtle nod to Smashing Pumpkins’ shoegaze-y, goth-metal edge. The most intriguing productions effect an imaginary soundtrack to a space opera of the mind. There’s hectic music for fight sequences (“Darkseid”); a fast song that would kill in a chase sequence (“4Æm”); a sex jam (“So Heavy”); a slow song for a climactic third-act kiss (“Before the Fever”); and a chipper love song for the closing credits (“IDORU”). Miss Anthropocene is a more cogent pitch for letting Grimes soundtrack director Denis Villeneuve’s forthcoming Dune remake than Geidi Primes, her literal Dune concept album.

When Miss Anthropocene lowers its guard, Grimes shines as a singer and a writer. “New Gods” questions the inherent goodness of deities while the voice and piano echo through the mix, evoking the cavernlike acoustics and humbling bombast of the inside of a church, all this while referencing the classic Jack Kirby comic. “You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around” is pained and clear, the purest pop-star move on the record and a reminder that Grimes scored a co-write and feature on Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer and almost got a song to Rihanna once. The stripped, dejected Lil Peep tribute “Delete Forever” proves what Grimes can do without a coat of irony, historical allegory, and drippy sonics. It’s devastating, personal, and literal, the notable occasion where an artist best known for intricate philosophical concepts, abstract audiovisual statements, and characters with elaborate backstories speaks poignantly to the audience as herself.

Grimes could be doing this all the time, but she’s reticent to be that forward that often, for reasons that make sense. It’s hard to keep revisiting something you wrote about a painful time. We often ask this of songwriters as though there’s no spiritual cost. Grimes might also be too into her distractions for that kind of writing, and this has also been true of the audience in many internet disputes over the performer’s sociopolitical stances since her 2012 breakthrough album Visions. Anthropocene hasn’t landed quietly either. It comes soon after Grimes announced she’s pregnant by her boyfriend of two years, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. On a certain level, it’s pretty rich concocting a statement about environmental catastrophe while seeing a guy who makes giant cars, donates to the party most in denial about climate change, and fields accusations of union-busting. It is also peak Grimes, meeting a billionaire with dreams of space travel over a joke about a thought experiment pondering the corruptibility of artificial intelligence. Does this further obfuscate Miss Anthropocene’s message? Did Grimes “sell out”? Is that the dream now?

Is Grimes an Anti-Hero or Villain?