Review: ‘Miss Anthropocene’ blends Grimes’ new and old styles

by Jack Hargrove | 2/27/20 2:00am

For Claire Boucher, the last few years have marked a massive change in popularity. Between the critical and commercial success of her 2015 album “Art Angels” and her high-profile relationship with billionaire Elon Musk, Boucher, better known as Grimes, has become a genuine celebrity. Her prodigious rise to stardom probably comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with her work since the beginning — which was full of obscured vocals and avant-garde goth-punk — especially since it took four albums for her to become a household name.

“Art Angels” marked an abrupt change in style for Grimes. All of a sudden, her vocals were front and center, backed by zanier and brighter production than ever before, making her music more commericially viable. In anticipation of her new album, Grimes’ celebrity grew to monumental heights, which led to personal uncertainty about whether or not she would progress further into upbeat, radio-friendly pop. 

However, in her new album, “Miss Anthropocene,” released Feb. 21, Grimes strikes the perfect balance between her more obscure early sound and her newer pop experimentation, albeit with a dark edge. The album’s only downsides are a couple of forgettable tracks toward the latter half of the album and its scattered concept — the album is supposed to represent the character Miss Anthropocene, the goddess of climate change, but falls short of achieving a unified concept.

Grimes immediately establishes the dark yet beautiful sound that makes up this album on its first track, “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth (Art Mix).” Over low synths and the steady strumming of a bass, Grimes wails in a high pitch, using her voice as an instrument rather than to convey meaning. The only lyrics that can easily be made out are her repetitions of the phrase “So heavy, I fell through the Earth” in the chorus. The song certainly lives up to its name; the dark synths and vocals convey a palpable sense of weight. The strong drum machine beat in the background is a taste of the EDM influence that appears throughout the work. The last minute of the track contains an ambient reprieve from the dark and heavy feeling in the rest of the song. 

The next few songs provide a diverse and engaging listening experience, although not as cohesive as needed for the concept of the album. The second song, “Darkseid,” picks up where the last track left off, kicking off with a bouncing drum beat and booming bass. The verses in the song are all sung in Mandarin by Taiwanese rapper 潘PAN. For listeners who do not speak Mandarin, these vocals functionally act as another instrument, much like Grimes’ singing in most of the album. While 潘PAN’s erratic, autotuned rapping and the intense production make “Darkseid” probably the strangest track on the album, the experimentation works very well. While many artists’ experimental tracks are a chore to listen to, “Darkseid” is an enjoyably sinister piece that helps to establish the murky and depressing feel of the LP.

The acoustic guitar in the third track, “Delete Forever,” provides a sudden contrast to the electronic sound of the album. While there are some minor synths in the song, the primary instruments used are guitar, trumpet and the banjo. Despite the hopelessness conveyed in both the lyrics and music, there is something deeply beautiful about this song. Grimes’ use of a more conventional singing style, as opposed to her previously muddled vocals, more effectively allows the lyrics about drug addiction to be heard more easily, amplifying the pain and sadness in the song. Lyrics like, “Always down when I’m not up, guess it’s just my rotten luck/To fill my time with permanent blue/But I can’t see above it, guess I f—king love it/But, oh, I didn’t mean to” contribute to the desolation of the track. At the same time, Grimes’ delicate voice paired with simple and familiar instrumentation evoke a more traditional sense of beauty in music.

Grimes again expands the musical diversity of the album on the next track, “Violence (Original Mix).” Even though it is a purely electronic song like most in her repertoire, the classic house music production makes it stand out on the album. The vocals are heavenly, almost completely disappearing into the sound of the track as the beat dominates. “Violence” is somewhat of a love song from the perspective of the Earth, who still cares about humanity despite the damage it has caused. Grimes sings, “Baby, it’s violence/But you can’t see what I see/You can’t see what I see/’Cause you, ha, ha, you feed off hurting me.” This song is the first in the album that helps set up the intended lyrical concept of the character Miss Anthropocene.

The centerpiece, and my favorite song on the album, is the fifth track, “4ÆM.” The track starts softly, with Grimes’ ethereal wailing over tropical drums. While it is nearly impossible to make out the lyrics in the verses, the vocals become much clearer in the chorus. However, the best part of the song is when the beat breaks down into an intense drum and bass lines. This song showcases Grimes’ skill at all types of EDM production, further cementing her status as a savant of electronic music.

Along with “4ÆM,” the seventh track, “My Name is Dark (Art Mix),” is one of the highlights of the album both musically and lyrically, espeically because the lyrics are very authentically “Grimes.” Over an ominous guitar line, Grimes sings “Imminent annihilation sounds so dope” and “Put on ‘Bullet with Butterfly Wings’/So that I can sing along while I break things” contain sentiments that only Grimes could come up with and that perfectly reflect her personality. The apocalyptic synths that play throughout the song compliment lyrics like “And the angel of death, she said to God/‘Un-f—k the world, un-f—k the world/You stupid girl, you stupid girl,’” which continue the climate change concept of the album. 

The eighth and ninth tracks, “You’ll miss me when I’m not around” and “Before the fever,” are the two most forgettable on the album. “You’ll miss me when I’m not around,” despite its intriguing concept, is a very musically simplistic and comparatively generic track. The lyrics tell the story of an angel who kills herself, but she just ends up waking up back in Heaven anyway. While this tragic story is an interesting listen, the production is not — the chord structure and guitar riff is uninteresting and the track is overall repetitive. “Before the fever” is even more forgettable — without any distinct character — and is the least enjoyable of the three slow songs on the album. However, the track does provide a dark atmosphere that sets up a satisfying transition to the final song. 

The album ends with the track “IDORU,” the only bright song. After the penultimate track “Before the fever” puts the mood at its darkest, the upbeat happiness in “IDORU” provides much needed catharsis. The song begins with the sounds of birds chirping, immediately signifying the bright outlook of the song. There are fluttery melodies throughout the track that give it a sunny feeling. Lyrically, “IDORU” is a pure love song, with lines like, “We could play a beautiful game/You could chase me down in the name/Of love/I wanna play a beautiful game/Even though we’re gonna lose/But I adore you/Adore you.” After nine tracks of darkness and existential despair, “IDORU” is a beautiful ending which encourages everyone to enjoy the short time they have on Earth. While most of the tracks are an effective blend of her early, experimental style and her more recent pop direction, “IDORU” stands out as the exemplar of the marriage. 

With “Miss Anthropocene,” Grimes has reconciled the pop stylings of “Art Angels” with the sound of her early work. Despite her celebrity, Grimes chose to make noncommercial music while still experimenting with pop vocals and production. She continues to evolve as an artist, and, as a result, each of her albums is more compelling than the last. “Miss Anthropocene” is no different, as it provides some of the most intriguing work of Grimes’ career. 

That being said, the album isn’t perfect — on top of the two less compelling tracks, the concept of Miss Anthropocene did not shine through. Out of the 10 tracks, only “Violence” and “My Name is Dark” are the only songs that truly devote themselves to the concept. If Grimes’ goal was to produce a concept album, she fell short. If her aim was to produce a great album, I would say “Miss Anthropocene” is a success.