Art-pop mastermind Grimes released her fifth studio album Miss Anthropocene on Friday, presenting a long-awaited and well-documented culmination of the Canadian artist’s growth into a true star.
Over 10 tracks (and various remixes, on the deluxe version), the synth-pop, trance-inducing dream is not always sweet, but not fully feverish either. This exercise in ‘villainy’, as the artist herself called it in an interview with Zane Lowe, explores the possibilities of an imminent, deconstructed world where erotic nihilism is the norm. Grimes’ most recent chapter in a very much unique interpretation of the archetypal popstar feels like a natural and familiar approach to the dark side, an exploration of this imagined dystopic future.
When she first started making waves in the Montreal techno scene back in the early 2010s, Claire Boucher was mixing nostalgic pop vocals — she once blended Taylor Swift and Mariah Carey into a ‘Boiler Room’ set back in 2013 — to emulate different, futuristic, weird, ominous, scrappy, feverish notes. She was known for stirring the pot, causing a scene, and saying exactly what was on her mind.
Though small, Boucher stood up to a very much male-dominated techno scene, trusting that her music could convey her vision. And it must have; since her 2012 album Visions and her 2015 record Art Angels, Grimes has become a celebrity very much in the public eye, a pop star in her own right.
Throughout 2018, Grimes released several upbeat, sugary, rave-like tracks with other femme superstars, like “Pynk” with Janelle Monáe, “Love4Eva” with LOONA yxyy, and “Play Destroy” with Poppy. Her pattern of single releases would continue through 2019, but rather than features, Grimes released tracks from her upcoming album.
When she announced Miss Anthropocene, Grimes said that each track should be “a different embodiment of human extinction as depicted through a popstar demonology.” This school of thought – popstar demonology – seems to appropriately consummate the space that Grimes occupies. She is both the beautiful, colourful, dramatic, head-turning popstar, but also the shameless, impulsive, honest, raw anti-popstar.
Miss Anthropocene, or the presentation of human extinction, as Grimes says, mostly shows at least in part that the apocalypse can be fun. She has not lost her chaotic giddiness — the sugar high that’s so trademark and intoxicating. “4ÆM” has the rapid, crazed energy of a video game intersected by hazy samples of “Deewani Mastani,” from the Indian film Bajirao Mastani.
“We Appreciate Power,” a collaboration with good friend and fellow musician HANA, introduces what Grimes called the “pro-AI propaganda girl group who embody our potential enslavement/destruction at the hands of artificial general intelligence.” Grimes revisits her rave roots with “Violence,” produced by Deadmau5’s i_o and signature of her trance background. The hard-hitting, metallic, clanging world feels much different than that of Art Angels. This one feels inherently dangerous, tragic, doomed.
But for just as other-worldly as Miss Anthropocene is, it is also familiar, nostalgic, like a memory forgotten. What Grimes undergoes is very much grounded in our same reality, and any future or apocalyptic subculture will undoubtedly have the same emotional pains of our modern human society. “Delete Forever,” a song named after the computer prompt when moving a file to the trash, is Grimes’ best writing on the album. It’s also yet another endeavor into her pop star aesthetic, featuring a spare, strumming guitar and the clarity for her vocals to really shine through.
Grimes told Zane Lowe she wrote this song after finding out that Lil Peep had died. The artist herself knows six people who have died from the growing opioid crisis, something she called “the black plague” and “the scourge of our society.” But however passionately she feels about it while interviewing, within the realm of “Delete Forever,” she is grim, nihilistic, and resigned, singing of “more lines on the mirror than a sonnet” and not being able to see “above it.” Even this psychedelic, villainous, beautiful tyrant that is Miss Anthropocene feels the hollow echo of loss. “Before the fever” is a hypnotic, intoxicating chill, beautiful but only because something about it sounds familiar. The layered vocals are an ocean, some slow-motion waltz at the bottom of the sea.
She strips it down similarly for “New Gods,” a track with very little vocal manipulation seeking new idols. This album feels very comfortable with her vocalizations, like that the vocals are integral parts of the songs rather than just an instrument that she overlays in editing. The tracks each build and deconstruct in a way that asserts the significance of each layer. Grimes’ songs are often full, yes, and sometimes indiscernible; however, every piece down to a single note is purposefully placed, something that her years of production and engineering ensured would become second nature.
This was an album that Grimes really wanted to get right. As she told Lana del Rey in 2019, “On my last record, I was like, ‘I don’t care. I’m not trying to impress anybody.’ And on my new record, I’m trying to impress everyone.” That makes this album feel different; Grimes, the shameless and in-your-face talent that she was, now more concerned with being accepted than making a scene. This may be her true transcendence into Pop Star proper, something she has never faced before: the persuasion to make a decision based on what others might think. But for someone who has quickly come up from the underground music scene, understanding that you’re now bigger than you’ve ever been can’t be an easy realization to have.
Grimes was, for a period, introduced to the mainstream as billionaire Elon Musk’s girlfriend, suddenly the focus of a different faction of the media. She was spoken about in a different way by those who had never heard of her – but for decade-long fans, while her attempted entry into the conversation about environmentalism may seem ironic given her partner’s controversial involvement in unsustainable endeavors, it only would matter if it affected the authenticity of her music.
Now, Grimes is singing of a world that she is personally involved in – the wealthy, technological, intrusive moves of Silicon Valley. Her new public identity, half of a very famous couple, may have shifted how she views herself. In an April 2019 interview, she said, “Love can be this beautiful thing, but then love is the thing that’s fucking up my career.” She continued to say that the biggest change she’s encountered has been “losing my hardcore masculinity. I used to just be free of all this bullshit all the other girls were going through, and now I feel like I’m not.”
Those listening to Grimes’ masterpieces are reaching for the otherworldly escape that she provides. Grimes trades any actual statements about nature or the environment, since the album is named after a contrived goddess of climate destruction, for the factory clangs of an industrial world, or the ghostly eeriness of an abandoned one, both ones that we already know. The glimpses of ecological decay, the glaring mortality of a nondigital world, and our increasing reliance on technology predestine any future dystopia. It’s here – and she’s in it, singing, “I get lost,” wandering in that ethereal nu-metal realm she built all those years ago.
Ultimately, Grimes appears to achieve what she wanted: to create an album that everybody likes. She’s still the fiery mixer with those soul-lifting beats, and she’s now also a genuine human fighting this same machine, always challenging reality, refusing to touch the ground.