Music

Despite its hypnotic melodies, complex dynamics and cohesive sound, Grimes’ album Miss Anthropocene falls short of its aim to revitalise our engagement with the climate crisis. By Isabella Trimboli.

Grimes’ Miss Anthropocene

Grimes.
Credit: Mac Boucher and Neil Hansen

In the transporting music video for “Delete Forever”, the artist known as Grimes sits atop a throne, surveying a crumbling empire that has a surfeit of all her visual hallmarks: nods to manga, multicoloured hair and a healthy dose of digital futurism. An unadorned acoustic ballad about the opioid epidemic, “Delete Forever” marks a left turn for the 31-year-old Canadian musician, known for her densely layered, audacious pop. More surprising, though, is that the song, like much of Grimes’ new album, Miss Anthropocene, sees the insular, alien universe in which her music has always existed brought down to Earth, connecting to the nihilistic mood pervading so much of contemporary pop.

A decade ago, things were different: Claire Boucher was a university dropout enmeshed in Montreal’s experimental DIY scene who had two albums available free online, Geidi Primes and Halfaxa. On a Tumblr account, she catalogued the seemingly disparate threads that made up her musical DNA – radio-friendly pop titans alongside anime soundtrack composers, English experimental musician Aphex Twin and mediaeval devotionals.

Boucher rarely updates her Tumblr now, and much of it has been deleted. What remains stands as a shrine to the long-forgotten promise that the internet would democratise music consumption and authorship, the belief being that unmitigated access would encourage the creation of riskier, genre-warping music. It has mostly cultivated the inverse: streaming giants have given rise to dull and inoffensive paint-by-numbers pop, manufactured to be placed on as many playlists as possible. Boucher, who writes, records and produces all her music, makes a sly dig at this development on Miss Anthropocene: truncated edits of sprawling, moody album singles “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth” and “My Name Is Dark” are labelled as “algorithm mixes”.

Boucher faced a barrage of attention after the release of Grimes’ breakthrough album – 2012’s Visions, an incandescent mutant-pop record, full of bubblegum melodies and glitched-out, propulsive production. Visions stood at the vanguard of indie music’s fixation with pop that has defined the past decade.

In the five years since her previous album, 2015’s astounding Art Angels, Boucher’s celebrity has skyrocketed, surpassing the realm of indie music royalty to become Daily Mail fodder, spurred largely by her much-scrutinised relationship with tech billionaire Elon Musk. For many, Boucher’s pairing with a figure of extreme Silicon Valley wealth seemed at odds with her outspoken, progressive values.

At the same time, while she was once almost too open and earnest on the internet, Boucher’s public persona became increasingly cynical and absurd. It was hard to know if her recent pregnancy announcement, which included surreal photos of a baby superimposed on her stomach, was genuine or tongue-in-cheek. In the credits of Miss Anthropocene, she writes of recording the album in places such as a Siberian bomb shelter, a trash pile and a spatial awareness chamber. Like much of this album, it’s a lot, and it can be hard to decipher what Boucher hopes to achieve with all these larks.

Miss Anthropocene has been billed as a concept album about climate change, something Boucher has said she wanted to make “fun”. “People don’t care about it, because we’re being guilted,” she told The Wall Street Journal last year. “I see the polar bear and want to kill myself. No one wants to look at it, you know? I want to make a reason to look at it. I want to make it beautiful.” A couple of weeks ago, she uploaded a poem online, in which Miss Anthropocene declares that “global warming is good”, the “greatest show in the universe”, with a call to celebrate “the most momentous of deaths”. Boucher has also said her unfavourable turn in the public consciousness inspired her to “pursue villainy artistically” on this album, making her another polarising pop figure to use wickedness as a site for reinvention.

Miss Anthropocene sees her embracing nihilism head-on. “So, we party when the sun goes low / Imminent annihilation sounds so dope,” she coos on the Smashing Pumpkins-indebted stomper “My Name Is Dark”. But she teases out more difficult, uneven dynamics too, in twisted, narcotic love songs concerned with relinquishing control, finding comfort in submission and surrendering part of yourself to another.

Much of the album takes the form of bleak, angsty tracks made for the dance floor. “4ÆM” begins as a dizzying Bollywood number until it curdles into a trance freakout. “Darkseid”, named after a DC Comics villain, is an exercise in body horror with Taiwanese rapper PAN describing oil being secreted from bodies. “Violence” is the most piercing of these songs – a sour dance-floor ditty about a masochistic relationship (“I’m, like, begging for it, baby,” Boucher sings over throbbing synths). But this album is also home to Grimes’ most downcast and slowest tracks, the best among them “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth”.

Boucher’s ear for indelible hooks has remained, but she forfeits much of her fascination with glossy pop on Miss Anthropocene for a constellation of influences better suited to her pessimistic project. She has leaned fully into the jagged, morose music of Nine Inch Nails and fellow Canadians Skinny Puppy; there are plenty of pop-punk riffs and flashes of ’90s grunge to be heard. These elements meld with hypnotic, otherworldly melodies that recall her earlier, more celestial arrangements.

Where Art Angels saw Boucher playing host to a collection of characters and genres, Miss Anthropocene is a far more cohesive record. Her sonic backdrops here are less cluttered, which give her gloomy songs space to stretch out. It also allows more room for her vocals to bounce around in each song, so that she often sounds as though she’s calling out from some dark ether, or the bottom of a well.

There is a bratty, emo bent to much of her fatalistic storytelling, which ranges from amusingly droll (“The boys are such a bore / The girls are such a bore / I never trust the government / And pray to God for sure”) to macabre (“I’ll tie my feet to rocks and drown / You’ll miss me when I’m not around”) to total cheesiness (“And you’re so cool / ’Cause you don’t think you’re cool / You can abuse it / Because you made my all-time favourite music”). The last lyric comes from the record’s only real bright spot, the glistening album closer “IDORU”. Full of shimmery synths, birds chirping and glassy vocals, the song seems to be based on the cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson’s novel of the same name, in which a rock star decides to wed a virtual reality idol.

However, Miss Anthropocene fails in its intention to be a concept album that speaks to the impending ecological crisis. It’s true that there is a real arrogance in believing we can control or outrun the doom at our doorstep, especially as we continue to decimate the Earth. But Boucher’s befuddling, vague, rip-it-up-and-start again, revel-in-the-spectre-of-death theatrics feel like an overly detached, if not cruel, conceit. It’s a shame that Boucher’s starkest statement on the future, the deranged nu-metal scorcher “We Appreciate Power” featuring HANA – which calls for us to submit to incoming “AI overlords” – has been relegated to being only on the album’s deluxe version.

Listening to Miss Anthropocene, I thought often about two other recent records that are also concerned with our bleak future: Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising and Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! While working in the margins of different pop traditions, all three albums feature languid, down-tempo tracks that resemble elegies to the cursed planet. Del Rey’s and Blood’s records, however, feel more attuned to this hurtling catastrophe and consequent existential crisis – cradling humour and hope in near-constant, everyday terror. Boucher’s world on Miss Anthropocene, while thrillingly camp and imaginative, feels comparatively like a distant and somewhat dated chronicle of dystopia. It seems the banal horror of the present has surpassed even the strangest speculative fiction.

 

Arts Diary

MULTIMEDIA The Otolith Group: Xenogenesis

Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne, March 6—June 21

FASHION Fit for Purpose

UTS Gallery, Sydney, until April 17

SCULPTURE Jan Learmouth: Between Horizons

Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, March 3-14

VISUAL ART 2020 Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art

Art Gallery of South Australia and Adelaide Botanic Garden, until June 8

FESTIVAL Upstream: Festival of Art + Culture

Venues throughout Albury-Wodonga, March 6-9

VISUAL ART Louise Olsen: Pollination

Olsen Gallery, Sydney, March 4-28

CULTURE Chillout Festival

Daylesford, Victoria, March 5-9

CINEMA Brisbane Queer Film Festival

New Farm Cinemas, Brisbane, March 5-15

CULTURE The Hat Project

Penrith Regional Art Gallery, Sydney, until March 22

MUSICAL Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster

The Attic, Adelaide, until March 15

Last chance

THEATRE I’m a Phoenix, Bitch

State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, Perth, until March 1

MULTIMEDIA Awavena — Lynette Wallworth

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until March 2

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 29, 2020 as "Topical climate".

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Isabella Trimboli is a Melbourne-based culture writer.