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Grimes
Miss Anthropocene CJ Thorpe-Tracey , February 21st, 2020 09:30

There are bangers on Grimes fifth album, Miss Anthropocene, but it wastes too much of its energy pretending to be edgier than it really is, finds CJ Thorpe-Tracey

Iconoclastic synth-pop producer Grimes (thirty-two year old Canadian Claire Boucher) is tricky to write about, if one wants to assess the music she makes but avoid the piles of pissy mythology, speculative fiction and tabloid bullshit that surround her life, like a fortress or a prison. Miss Anthropocene (good pun) is Grimes’ fifth album in a decade but also her first in five years, following 2015’s ecstatically praised Art Angels. She’s been distracted, that’s understandable. But here we are.

Miss Anthropocene is an echoing, wind-swept synth-pop collection underpinned by rumbling, often undefined bass and a solid – though relatively bog-standard – range of beats; with bangy Pendulum-ish drum’n’bass and electro purist flavours at one end; dramatic, treacle-slow, low-end gloop at the other. Especially early tracks like sprawling opener ‘So Heavy I Fell Through The Earth’ are curiously old-fashioned, like discovering an old binned Massive Attack jam. There are moments that lean alt-rock, though again heavily produced, with a 1990s Garbage palette, more than anything of Gen Z immediacy. I admit, I expected raw experiments. I expected turbulence and I’m surprised how easy a flight it is. It sounds like the intros or outros of, say, late era Madonna deep cuts, before or after the actual songs happen.

‘Darkseid’ is plain delicious, even if it believes itself to be the sound of monstrous alien incursion. The stream-of-conscious of 潘PAN’s semi spoken contribution is aces. Without vocals, honestly it could be a quasi-ambient remix of a Coldplay song. Or actually, a less cheerful Moodswings. That sounds damn mean – but it’s accurate. Later, emerging out of the balearic sunrise of ‘Violence’, the drum’n'bass one is ‘4æM’ with an almost goony, almost cheerleader-ish chanting and just enough of a (non-authentic) nod to the middle-east, it could be a 2003 remixer sampling a dusty Ofra Haza twelve-inch.

‘Delete Forever’ – the one track with noticeable acoustic instruments on – is poorly-taped acoustic guitar playing plummy folk-pop chords and vocal that sounds awful too. But it's discernible. And to be fair, when the beat shows up it’s fat and tight, with quirky little plip plops to divert attention from a shit-eating half ballad. But the live recorded bits are horrible. Whoever played the fiddle should sue. It’s like Grimes built the track on top of a demo and can’t be arsed to re-up, or worse, she’s deliberately reaching for that effect. When the banjo shows up, I’m very annoyed indeed.

That’s harsh though, there’s plenty of goodness to wallow in. It’s a global stoner soundtrack. The problem isn't what Miss Anthropocene is. It’s what it wrongly believes itself to be. Getting a clear sense of Grimes' personal doom-laden apocalyptic vision is near impossible without wider context of her curated narrative, away from music. The very context I most need to avoid. That's her flaw, not mine: for (an obvious) example, on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, even through the entire public narrative centred Jay-Z’s infidelity (whether real or stage-managed) and wider matters arising, around background and race and parenthood, you didn’t need any of that commentariat dribble to follow the thread of sentiment and the emotional journey of the outstanding material itself and adore the shit out of the record. Its power is contained. Lorde’s Melodrama does that brilliantly too. The songwriting does the job.

Not so here, I don't think – though who knows for sure, when a multi-layered opacity of effects stands firm between me and any clarity, telling me I shall not pass. The state of Grimes' singing voice is hard to ascertain: rave-era, chiming girlish roots, pure tone, drenched in such ubiquitous layers of effects and affectation, often to a Cocteau Twins or ( )-era Sigur Ros level of unintelligibility. It may be a sensible strategy though, because when I can make them out, Grimes’ lyrics are distinctly not amazing.

Here’s a bit of ‘You'll Miss Me When I’m Not Around’:

“I shot myself yesterday
Got to Heaven anyway
Think I might regret it now
Tie my feet to rocks and drown”

And:

“If you don't play then you don’t die
Cross my heart and hope to fly
If you like it then you might get out alive”

Damnit it, it's Meghan Trainor league emo-lite fromagerie. Right now we have some truly superb writing, wrapped up in straight R&B and electro-pop, including from several of Grimes’ superstar peers. Yet whatever it longs to be, this is a dumb rave pop record and not remotely edgy, sonically or lyrically. Which is totally fine, dude, especially in the moments it forgets to act murderous. But god, stop pretending.

The bits I like, I enjoy a lot. The bits I don’t like are incredibly irritating. As such, taken alongside all the other tabloid faff, Miss Anthropocene is a Kanye West of a listening experience. Strengthened by listening less hard and chilling out. Weakened by due diligence and the artist’s cerebral disconnect between what she's great at making and who she believes she is. I haven’t got this pissed off with an album I’m actually enjoying for a long while. I think Grimes is a strong – perhaps brilliant – composer and producer of the mainstream, if she can just quit hanging off the sharp edge of a phoney counter-culture jag, while it slices through her hands. This is one intransigent sense of self, though, in an otherworldly space. A pile of reverb doesn’t make a basic jam more experimental, it just makes it harder to understand.

Perhaps seven minute closing track ‘IDORU’ gets the closest to the sonic journey I’d hoped for, even with all the same ingredients. A vocal treatment works, finally. A minutiae of momentary experience is leaned into, instead of performed. Grimes abandons herself to whatever she’s expressing. It’s quite the banger.

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