In the aftermath of her transition from a DIY, counter-culture feminist to Elon Musk’s goth popstar girlfriend, Grimes has released Miss Anthropocene (2020). Though her ecological thesis gets lost in her nihilistic translation, Miss Anthropocene registers as an accomplished culmination of her sound’s development before and since its acceptance in the mainstream music scene.
Grimes has a lot to live up to, however. Her previous album, Art Angels (2015), was released to critical acclaim and made appearances on a significant number of Best Albums of the Decade lists. Art Angels was an experiment in bringing her ethereal techno into the mainstream, thus making it “pop.”
Miss Anthropocene, even from its dark cover art, distinguishes itself from its bright predecessor. Where Art Angels was designed as a statement on the restrictive nature of genre in the mainstream music industry, Miss Anthropocene is meant to be a critical statement on modern society. The character of Miss Anthropocene (a play on words, misanthropy and anthropocene) is an anthropomorphized, demonic goddess of climate change delighting in the end of the world.
Miss Anthropocene’s first track breaks the artist’s long-held streak of relatively short and sweet openers. “So Heavy I Fell Into the Earth,” introduces the dark tone of the album. The track’s emphasis on atmosphere creates a trance-like experience, though this can at times read as monotonous. Grimes has described the song as being inspired by the ego death involved in pregnancy as well as subservience to Miss Anthropocene, or “the end of the world.” These sentiments capture the interplay and occasional tension of meaning present in the album: Grimes both seeks to provide a criticism and analysis of modern society, as well as an exploration of her own personal experiences.
The ethereal quality of “So Heavy I Fell Into the Earth” transforms into the magnificently obnoxious bass of “Darkseid,” an incredible transition on the album. “Darkseid” features previous collaborator, Taiwanese rapper Pan, allegedly after a planned collaboration with Lil Uzi Vert fell through. Named after the insanely powerful Justice League villain, “Darkseid” is perhaps easier to digest than the duo’s previous collaboration, “Scream,” though less fun than Grimes’s previous bass-heavy tracks, notably Art Angel’s “Venus Fly.”
The sounds of “Darkseid” serve as a relative contrast to the other Justice League inspired track “New Gods,” which instead plays more like a ballad and highlights Grimes’s improved vocals. Grimes, inspired by her interest in ancient pantheons, ruminates on the ideas human’s have given god-like importance to in our post-technology society: social media, pollution, plastic surgery. The track’s epic quality creates a score-like sound that seems to fit the singer’s vision of the modern gods.
The other mellow track, pre-release “Delete Forever,” surprised fans prior to the album release for showing a new side of the artist, revealing what has been deemed “Soft Grimes.” The track is raw and emotional, lamenting on the opioid crisis and the friends Grimes has lost to it. Her relatively strong voice carries a melodic tune against a simple guitar riff. This simplicity of the track made many listeners curious as to whether it would fit in cohesively on the darker album, but it’s suffering tone and lyricism justifies its inclusion. The track still stands out, however, against the overt and heavy nihilism celebrated by others on the LP.
The album is still Grimes, however, so obviously there has to be some hyperpop bangers. The psychedelic ride of “4ӔM” and sci-fi club track “Violence” are unbelievably catchy, though don’t quite reach the level of previous hit “Kill v. Maim”’s anthemic high. The fact that both tracks were also dropped as singles before the album highlights an issue with pre-releases in general: The album’s full release feels less significant given that its most popular songs have already been available.
Grimes’s own description of the album’s sound as being “ethereal nu metal” comes across most clearly in the gloomier tracks. She weaves together the melodic mainstream with her bass-heavy sense of doom in “My Name is Dark,” “Before the fever,” and “You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around.” Heavy guitar use shows the influence of her own affinity for metal bands, creating a hardcore sense of power in the midst of general moodiness. It is also with these songs that her messaging gets most convoluted, however: “My Name is Dark” was (and, for Grimes, still should be) titled “What the Drugs Are For,” a nihilist anthem.
Interestingly, despite the otherwise dark societal focus of the album, its finale, “IDORU,” leaves listeners with a love song. Perhaps intended to leave the listener with a feeling of hope in the aftermath of “Before the fever,” the track plays like a sci-fi ballad, creating a galactic fairy-tale. In one interview, Grimes explains how her relationship with Elon Musk has hurt her sense of hardcore masculinity, and “IDORU” reads like the product of this emotional and almost cute Grimes. It’s ecstatic and light, with a beautiful chorus, though perhaps using the shorter Algorithm Mix on the official release would make the song feel more impactful.
Grimes’s newest album may read as a breath of fresh air for those who felt Art Angels was a betrayal of mainstream conformity. Instead, Miss Anthropocene might seem like a return to the dark and eerie roots of Halfaxa (2010) and Visions (2012). The album, in turn, may also alienate and remain forgettable for those who preferred the clearer and cleaner brightness of Art Angels. The fact that the tracks themselves are stylistically eclectic, however, means that there is likely a track for any type of Grimes fan.
Whether Miss Anthropocene thematically succeeds is also debatable. Miss Anthropocene is, at its essence, intended to be a concept album. This concept doesn’t read as an ecological call to action, however, but more often than not as a celebration of nihilism and goth sci-fi galore. Grimes perhaps succeeds in making climate change fun, though at the expense of making “doom” appear like something worth avoiding. Some critics have argued this result as coming from a place of privilege in the ability to turn a crisis into an aesthetic. Given that we rarely see any music trying to make productive political statements, though, this effort is still worth commending. The reality is that making climate change “fun” means people will pay attention and listen, and that’s what political statements and music are both trying to accomplish. If people want facts and calls to action, they can watch the news.
Miss Anthropocene is Grimes’s post-popstar album, celebrating submission to the gothic doom of the apocalypse. And yet it is also a deeply personal album lamenting love, death, and the shallow and suffering society we live in. Whether it’s lived up to its predecessors is a matter of what the listener seeks from Grimes. It doesn’t make me want to dance and break things like Art Angels, but instead gives me the essence of a dark, moody goddess. Both of these experiences are important. Miss Anthropocene is able to stand on its own as a solid and creative feat, and we should celebrate the unique qualities it brings. Grimes, without a doubt, continues to fight against the notion that electropop is vapid by essence, instead bringing raw honesty and artistic meaning to each of her catchy and intense tracks.