The road to Grimes’ fifth album has not been straight or smooth. After releasing her poppiest (and most critically acclaimed) record yet in 2015’s ‘Art Angels’, the Canadian one-woman-band was faced with two paths: up the ante even more and embrace the mainstream or burrow back into the weird world that she first emerged from, when she told tales of days-long benders in blacked-out bedrooms and missions to prove herself as a producer as well as a musician.
While the world waited to see which one she’d choose, she unintentionally built anticipation with fired-up posts about fallouts with her label 4AD, Instagram teases about new directions that she’d backtrack on within days and – most famously – a relationship with Tesla boss Elon Musk that, at first, fans found bizarre but funny, and which has now has brought more scrutiny to her door.
Because of that relationship, Grimes might now be a regular in celebrity press but ‘Miss Anthropocene’ does little to embrace or capitalise on the interest that people in those circles now have in her. She has very much taken the second of those two paths, creating a murky, meandering and sometimes suffocatingly dense record that plays with the concept behind the titular character, a malevolent goddess of climate change.
Don’t expect this long-awaited album to be the first full-length soundtrack to marches in the name of the planet’s survival and inspiring speeches from Greta Thunberg, though. Its concept is somewhat fragmented, cropping up here and there rather than being a unifying thing to tie every song neatly together. Miss Anthropocene herself only lurks in the album’s shadows – never explicitly mentioned herself – while other references to the general idea are oblique or need the knowledge of Grimes’ intentions to be spotted.
On the eerie ‘New Gods’, she sings an ode to what she considers our deities in the 21st century – “plastic and pollution and plastic surgery and social media”. “So I pray, but the world burns,” she sighs early on. Meanwhile, on the pulsating, intergalactic rave-pop of ‘Violence’, things play out like a twisted, sex dungeon-dwelling love story between humanity and the Earth. Grimes asserts, “You feed off hurting me”, before teasing, “And I like it like that, and I like it like that.”
Largely, ‘Miss Anthropocene’ is more concerned with other aspects of life than our collective impending doom. ‘Delete Forever’, the record’s sonic outlier, an unexpected burst of incredibly clean acoustic guitar jangles and Grimes’ voice unencumbered by effects and production. Written the night Lil Peep died, it deals with addiction and death by opiates, something the musician says has brought many of her friends’ lives to an end. “Always down when I’m not up / Guess it’s just my rotten luck / To fill my time with permanent blue,” she sings at one point, analysing the life of a musician and the need to mine life’s darkest parts for your art.
Elsewhere love becomes the main focus. Take claustrophobic opener ‘So Heavy I Fell Through The Earth’: over a distant, slow bass thump she reveals the reason for her descent – “Cos I’m full of love for you”. The grungy ‘You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around’ takes a different approach to that loved-up tone, offering an understated warning to a partner who might be about to pass up on her love. “Last call, last call,” she mumbles in its chorus. “You’ll miss me when I’m not around / Promise if I make it, I’ll kiss you good night.”
Most interestingly of all, though, is the seven-minute closing song, ‘IDORU’, which breaks with the album’s tradition of dark, smoggy layers in favour of something more hopeful and light. It opens with bird calls and then shifts into glittering, gentle synths that are softly euphoric and gorgeously dreamy. “Yeah we could play a beautiful game,” Grimes coos happily, her mood continuing, even when she’s admitting: “Even though we’re gonna lose/But I adore you.” It seems like she’s talking about a relationship, but there are parallels here with humans’ attitudes to Earth.
Even when we’re bombarded with messages about the planet’s decay, we still somehow cling onto some grain of naive hope – be that in the form of teenage activists or in the belief of collective action – that somehow we’ll make it through.
On ‘Miss Anthropocene’ Grimes proves herself once again to be the master of her own destiny, refusing to let any outside forces steer her from the course she’s chosen for herself, even if the album itself does deviate from the expected script. It’s a record stuffed with imagination and packed with beauty. It’s also a fitting next step for an artist who’s built her reputation as someone who refuses to keep in step with the rest of the world.
Record label: 4AD
Release date: February 21, 2020