Psych album of the week: Miss Anthropocene by Grimes (2020)

Grimes’s fifth full-length is both a consolidation of everything that makes her work special and another leap forward

Grimes

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The English band Spacemen 3 once released an album called Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To. That’s an amusing title and probably pretty accurate as far as Spacemen 3 was concerned. Of course, you don’t have to take any drugs to enjoy music; music is arguably its own kind of mind-altering substance. For those so inclined, however, we offer the following as a must-hear.

Many know Canadian musician Grimes (born Claire Elise Boucher in Vancouver) best as the partner of tech entrepreneur and galactic visionary Elon Musk. Her DIY success as an electronic-music producer and visual artist, however, makes her just as worthy of recognition and appreciation on her own merits. 

Released in February of 2020, Miss Anthropocene is Grimes’s fifth full-length. It’s both a consolidation of everything that makes her work special and another leap forward in terms of production quality and overall artistry.  The artist has described it as both “ethereal” and “heavy”. 

This writer’s own 10-year-old daughter describes Grimes’s sound as “pretty nuts”. She is surely primarily responding to Boucher’s sonic trademark elfin-alien vocals. These are often incomprehensible and heavily treated, but Grimes always fills them with a compelling humanity whatever words are or are not being used. 

Vocal gymnastics

Grimes’s imaginative vocal arrangements owe as much to the vocal gymnastics of pop diva Mariah Carey as they do to indie sirens like Kate Bush or Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins or the treatment-obsessed techno-noir vocals of the Knife. No matter how experimental Grimes gets with her production, however, you can usually sing along and often dance to it as well. 

Single “4ÆM” is classic Grimes. Intended to be a “cyberpunk interpretation” of Bollywood romantic epic Bajirao Mastani, it begins with wordless, multilayered soprano space scatting over subtle eastern percussion loops. At around the 50-second mark, it breaks into a 180+bpm pop chant of “4 AM, 4 AM, 4 AM…” surrounded by additional layers of wordless vocal tendrils. These two sections alternate until the track fades away to the sound of synth chimes and a final vocal drawn up to the heavens. 

Although her work sometimes features some carefully chosen guest vocalists, Grimes largely produces her own music. Indeed, she comes across as determined to answer to no one but herself creatively. 

Her 2015 breakout album Art Angels was the first to feature Boucher using guitars. Miss Anthropocene has several metallized tracks with her heaviest guitar work yet. These include the 2018 single and eventual bonus track “We Appreciate Power” and the distorted bass guitar–driven “My Name Is Dark”.

A concept album of sorts

Miss Anthropocene is also a concept album of sorts. The concept is tied to atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen’s proposed term for Earth’s current geological age, Anthropocene. A fictional cosmology loosely ties together a theme of climate change and celestial and terrestrial happenings. A lack of cohesion surrounding this idea is the album’s biggest opportunity for improvement, though. 

Grimes’s penchant for having many of her words lost in production and glossolalia may work against her in this sense. On the other hand, the sound and mood of the album more than compensates for any conceptual vagueness. File this album alongside My Bloody Valentine and Enya. Or really any artist where the mood is more important than understanding what is being sung about. 

When Grimes’s skill with words and conveying a narrative catches up with her musical imagination and production chops, she may even outpace Mr. Musk in their reach for the stars. 

Standout tracks

“So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth”, the jaunty but mournful “Delete Forever”, the mid-tempo unease of “Violence”, the ballad-esque “New Gods”, the distorted indie glide of “My Name Is Dark”, and the pastoral “Idoru”.

Sonic psych-out

Closer “Idoru” begins with gently honking harmonium and a calming choir of bird sounds. This suggests a positive outcome after the weight of the rest of the album.

In her own words

“The album I have wanted to make my whole life but I needed to get there emotionally and technically.”

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