It’s been a weird time to be a Grimes fan. Since the release of “Art Angels” — the best album of 2015 — the artist, whose real name is Claire Boucher, shot into the stratosphere. Part of that was due to the strength of the music itself, embracing her own warped brand of pop. But for most people, it was her relationship with Elon Musk that spurred her into the popular spotlight.
From an outside perspective, it was (and still is) easy to make jokes about her, most of it centered on her overall weirdness and “online-isms.” Not every move she made in that time was a good one — namely defending Musk’s union-busting — but for an artist perpetually fighting for control over her narrative, it must have been absolute hell having every word and insignificant Tweet scrutinized. In the whirl of chaos and heat for her chosen man, it feels like everyone has overlooked or ignored her obvious talent.
“Art Angels” is a masterpiece of self-production, the result of a woman wishing to exert every last inch of control and pulling it off with confidence, to the extent of teaching herself the violin and bass. So for anyone not paying attention, the announcement of “Miss Anthropocene” surely seemed like a disaster in the making. Get this: a concept album by an airy pop-star about climate change and the apocalypse of technology!
Fans can rest easy. “Miss Anthropocene” is as good as anything Grimes has ever done. It’s an album that recalls the darkness of her earlier work — namely “Halfaxa” — and injects moments of dance music and even sludge. Her self-described ADD approach is all over it as well: one moment you’re hearing returning guest Aristophanes (under the name PAN) spitting Mandarin over Boucher’s high vocals (“Darkseid”), the next Boucher is strumming along on “Delete Forever,” recalling choice cut “California.” She even drops a moment of drum n’ bass on the “Cyberpunk 2077” track “4AM,” which was allegedly inspired by a Bollywood film. Elsewhere, tracks like “Violence” (a collaboration with i_o) and “My Name Is Dark” slink around, worming their way into your skull like classic “Visions” tracks with just a hint of menace.
Where the album falters is in the lyrics. On some level, we probably shouldn’t have expected much from the concept part. After all, this is the same artist who described “Kill V. Maim” as a song about “Al Pacino’s character from ‘The Godfather’ who’s a vampire and can change his own gender.” Boucher is still plenty skilled at coming up with “earworm-y” lines (“You wanna make me bad,” “I see everything,” etc).
It can’t help but feel, though, that the central story or character never really finds its way through the layers of reverb and studio effects. None of the songs ever feel as cutting as lines like “The things they see in me, I cannot see myself / When you get bored of me I’ll be back on the shelf” or “See you on a dark night.” Even when her past songs were drenched in reverb, Boucher still usually managed to hook onto a special phrase, a fragment of something. For an album this ambitious, it’s a bit of a letdown that she doesn’t really sink her teeth deep into a story; it’s not very coherent or cohesive, even as individual tracks have their standout moments.
Despite all that, there’s no arguing that Boucher’s dedication to self-production is hindering her. After all, she’s said she wants to be involved so she never has to worry about being shut out from her own ideas. Perhaps people expect too much from Grimes; perhaps she doesn’t even know what she wants Grimes to be. Whether she branches out to being a producer behind the scenes (as in her second collab with Janelle Monae) or fully ascends to pop star status, the truth is we’ll never be able to predict where Boucher will go — and neither will she. Those genre shifts, and wild experiments are what make her so exciting. Grimes won’t be going anywhere; we’ll just have to catch up to her.