Miss Anthropocene has had a lengthy, difficult birth. As perhaps befits an album that was announced in 2017, then derailed by ferocious-sounding spats between artist and record company, rerecording, and rejigging of the track listing, it comes with a weighty concept attached. Miss Anthropocene is, Grimes says, a work based around the idea of anthropomorphising climate change into the figure of a villainous goddess (“she’s naked all the time and she’s made out of ivory and oil”) whose name is a conflation of “misanthrope” and the proposed scientific term for the current geological epoch, and who celebrates the imminent destruction of the world.
This seems like a more original approach to the topic of global heating than the standard songwriter practice of finger-wagging. But the actual album, now that it’s here, gives the distinct impression of being a conceptual work in the same way that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a conceptual work: ie, that its maker came up with a big, overarching idea that they then more or less abandoned after a couple of songs.
There are points on Miss Anthropocene when the whole naked-evil-climate-crisis-goddess-made-from-ivory-and-oil thing is in evidence. “This is the sound of the end of the world,” Grimes sings over a haze of noisy, shoegazey guitar on Before the Fever. “I got everything you want, I can make it feel so wet”. My Name Is Dark, meanwhile, is punctuated by screams, and Grimes snarls “imminent annihilation sounds so dope” in a 21st-century equivalent of the horrified relish with which some post-punk artists conjured scenarios of nuclear apocalypse.
But for the most part, Miss Anthropocene seems inspired less by climate change than by recent events in the musician’s life. Already the kind of artist whose vast media footprint dwarfs the sales of her critically acclaimed albums – her biggest seller, 2012’s Visions, reached No 98 in the US – Grimes’s profile soared even further when she appeared in public on the arm of Tesla CEO Elon Musk. In America, a country that may be even more given to pearl-clutching about what you might call indie ethics than the UK, news of their romance was greeted as if the lead singer of Idles had announced his engagement to Katie Hopkins.
Perhaps understandably, Grimes took being held up as the living embodiment of contemporary nihilism owing to her romantic choices quite badly. “Love is the thing that’s fucking up my career,” she protested to one interviewer. “My reputation is at an all-time low,” she told another. It’s the response to her private life that seems to be at the root of Miss Anthropocene, which opens with a song in which Grimes imagines being dragged to some kind of netherworld on account of who she’s sleeping with. Industrial noise rages over pummelling bass, a leaden drum pattern thuds, her breathy vocals keep threatening to sound euphoric – beginning to spiral upwards as the song reaches its chorus before pulling back to somewhere darker and more discomfiting. If it’s a concept album at all, it’s about the toxicity of modern celebrity, not CO2 emissions.
And on those terms, Miss Anthropocene works remarkably well: for all the sci-fi theorising, the emotions at its centre feel prosaic, realistic and affecting. By turns it is disorienting (the frantic Mandarin vocals on Darkseid create the same mood of panicky confusion as Michi Hirota’s contributions to David Bowie’s It’s No Game) and defiant (“You want to make me bad and I like it like that,” she insists on Violence). But the defiance, the whole how-do-you-like-me-now? idea, isn’t terribly convincing, and is undercut by the overwhelming mood of melancholy in varying shades, from Delete Forever’s resigned acoustic strum to You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around, which sets some bleak lyrics about self-harm and suicide to a weird blend of grunge guitar rock and wilfully plasticky vocal samples.
Not all the musical experiments work. The Bollywood samples, bursts of lock-stepped drum’n’bass and one-note chorus of 4AM are more annoying than intriguing. But most do. Idoru, a title that borrows a Japanese word for a pampered star, is ostensibly a profession of love but there is something chaotic and shaky about its sound, decorated with lo-fi recordings of birdsong and melodica; it often feels like the only thing preventing it from collapsing entirely is the rhythm track.
On New Gods, meanwhile, the pretty vocal melody is drowned out by its own vast echo – one of a handful of points on the album where it feels as if Grimes is retreating. Her vocals are so regularly smeared or buried you feel as if you’re straining to eavesdrop. That makes sense: Miss Anthropocene seems a more personal project than its advance billing suggested. It doesn’t add much to the climate change debate, but as a representation of what it’s like when fame turns dark, it is powerful and compelling.
This week Alexis listened to
Daniel Avery and Alessandro Cortini: Illusion of Time
The first track from a collaborative album due next month, Illusion of Time is beautiful: a lulling melody doing battle with a slowly rising tide of electronic noise.
• This review was amended on 10 August 2020 to clarify that the guest vocals on Darkseid were in Mandarin, not “in Chinese” as an earlier version said.