There is no figure in music more paradoxical right now than Grimes. Consistently, she has shown both a gift for pop sensibilities and a rejection of diving fully into them. With her latest album “Miss Anthropocene,” Grimes continues walking this tight line with a concept album that is simultaneously dark and vulnerable, heartfelt and otherworldly, futuristic and nostalgic. While the high points of “Miss Anthropocene” are born from these contradictions, though, they also hold the album back from the masterpiece she envisioned.
Grimes is undoubtedly trying to ride a new kind of pop star wave, and so it helps to view the album in the context of her image and story. To give some context, Grimes has had a weird path to success. She first caught attention as a DIY producer-singer-mixer on “Visions,” where her vulnerability and quietness gave the album a distinct charm. Even by her follow-up “Art Angels,” we were far away from that. Since then, she entered a relationship with billionaire Elon Musk, one that became contentious after scandals like her defense of union-busting on Twitter and a failed threesome with Azealia Banks. Things became so crazy that she successfully fooled people during a campaign with Adidas into believing she replaced part of her eye with a blue-light-blocking compound she developed.
The point is, she has been beloved for groundedness, reviled for opulence and renowned for eccentricity, all in the past decade. All of this can take a toll on a person, which definitely shows on “Miss Anthropocene.” Filled with moody, spacey, synthy songs, the album sounds like it came from a cave — or rather, a lair. The lyrics and vocals sound unconcerned with the personal drama Grimes has surrounded herself with, but the production shows a sort of reveling in villainy.
Instead, many of the lyrics reflect a more existential set of concerns. Themes include mortality and drug addiction on “Delete Forever,” consumerism and fulfillment on “New Gods” and climate change on “Violence.” Grimes sounds like she is giving into the end of the world on many tracks here, dancing and posing for the end times.
Just as this album is grotesque and aloof, though, it is marked by moments of extreme vulnerability. When she strips down the production on “Delete Forever,” you feel close to her. When she repeats “That’s what the drugs are for” and “You stupid girl” on “My Name is Dark,” you feel concern for her. And when touches of early ‘00s production break through the moodiness here, you feel a bit nostalgic, almost.
The greatest successes of this album are its meshes of opposites, these bits and pieces that make you want to listen again because you doubt your experience the first time around.
However, many of these tensions in the album also serve to bring it down. Some of the songs get a bit lost in Grimes’s purported artistry and end up sounding muddy. “Darkseid” and “Before the Fever” are the worst examples of this — both are almost drowning in their own moodiness. This is the problem with “Miss Anthropocene:” Grimes tries to create pop music without fully respecting its goals and motivations. Pop music wants to lodge itself in your brain with lyrics and sounds you can loop in your head over and over. Grimes at times instead tries to experiment with soundscapes and form. While this is an admirable attempt, it goes too far often on “Miss Anthropocene,” a fact that Grimes herself is aware of. The algorithm mixes she made for the deluxe version seem almost a half measure against this problem, as if she knew some of her original visions wouldn’t match up with conventional taste.
That’s not to say there aren’t singular tracks that escape this trap. The aforementioned “Violence” is brilliant, and “You’ll miss me when I’m not around” is clean. While not on the album proper, “We Appreciate Power” and the bonus tracks all hit hard, as well. But as a whole, these disparate sounds come off a bit directionless. This is in contrast to Grimes’s previous albums, which feel cohesive throughout.
The otherworldliness of “Miss Anthropocene” is enough to keep you enthralled for a time, and the standout tracks are so good that they will demand your attention for long after. Grimes really did manage to create something authentic and bizarre here, and the spectacle of it all merits at least one listen all the way through. It’s just, the contradictions this album presents may prevent it from being more than a spectacle in the long run.
Peter Fenteany is the associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.