On her fifth full-length album, Miss Anthropocene, Claire Boucher has officially been proclaimed a pop star, which may have less to do with the critical acclaim of her last album, 2015’s excellent Art Angels, and more to do with her success in checking off every box in the modern how-to rubric for the role.
The blueprint for pop stardom in the social media era couldn’t be more clear: First, high-profile coupledom as the foundation for an emotional narrative. Next, messy, salacious drama with other celebrities; then, a political stance that can be picked apart, dissected, and analyzed through every lens imaginable. Finally, and perhaps least importantly, an album as a container for thoughts on all of these other subjects to make their way out into the world. (If this sounds cynical, use it to analyze most major and successful pop albums of the last two or three years and see if it fits).
As Grimes, Boucher has often been a frustratingly finicky entity, making bold, attention-catching statements then chastising the media for covering them, crossing so far over into surrealism and fantasy worlds that it was sometimes hard to know where the person ended and persona began — and vice versa — but always portraying herself as decidedly, overwhelmingly liberal, anti-capitalist, and fiercely independent. This all had an air of purposefulness to it, the blurred lines between artistic entity and Claire Boucher, the person, made both Grimes and Claire all the more mysterious and unknowable.
And it’s not to say that it’s impossible to keep those values and that surrealism intact while dating a billionaire like Elon Musk, but it’s infinitely more complicated, and arguably even hypocritical, particularly when dating someone leads to defending their business decisions or making excuses for their workplace behavior. Sure, none of this needs to have anything to do with Grimes’ music, but the intense scrutiny surrounding her unlikely relationship, and the way their coupling suddenly increased their status and began to interconnect their futures, makes it impossible to ignore.
On Miss Anthropocene, I kept waiting for the throughline that would tie it all together, that one perfect song that justified billboards sardonically proclaiming “Global Warming Is Good” as part of a tongue-in-cheek slew of album promotion, something that explained her sudden flip into a relationship with a man like Musk. But it never came. Very little on her latest album comes close to the whirlwind synth-pop rush of 2012’s Visions, or the hypnotizing sweetness of her best work, Art Angels, an album she now disavows. The closest thing to a fantastic Grimes song on Miss Anthropocene is “Delete Forever,” a despair-as-guitar-bop written on the night of Lil Peep’s death; the most interesting new music from this era, a surging ‘80s power-pop banger “We Appreciate Power,” has been relegated to bonus track status.
As Grimes fleshed out her relationship with Musk, potentially carrying his child, getting into a very public feud with Azealia Banks involving him, and defending herself when people began to assume his wealth and influence was impacting her career, songs like “We Appreciate Power” — which purported to come from the perspective of a state-supported girl group evangelizing for AI overlords — became harder to take seriously. Suddenly, the utterly absurd premise of this song didn’t seem so far-fetched; in a future dystopian hellscape when humans live on Mars in a SpaceX colony, would Grimes’ songs blare through martian speakers, praising Elon’s name? The parody was a little too on the nose to work, given her increasing proximity to one of the most powerful tech billionaires in the world. Perhaps that bizarro world possibility is the explanation for its demotion to the deluxe version?
Of the ten songs that made Miss Anthropocene’s standard edition, lots of them are beautiful — “Delete Forever” is near perfect — and a few are even fascinating. The album’s pristine opener, “So Heavy I Fell Through The Earth,” has the dreamy fogginess of a Grouper song, and “4ÆM,” which was directly inspired by the Bollywood film, Bajirao Mastani, revs up into the genre’s signature trilling chant before dropping into an electro-pop chorus, a blockbuster of a track made even more thrilling by Grimes’ accompanying dance-meets-virtual-reality performance at The Game Awards in late 2019. (The song will appear in the video game Cyberpunk 2077.)
“Darkseid,” a song Boucher wrote as a potential Lil Uzi collab, becomes the home for Taiwanese rapper 潘Pan’s painful verses, which Grimes told Apple Music detail feelings about a friend’s suicide. “My Name Is Dark,” “Violence,” and “New Gods” all have glimmers of brilliance in them, but ultimately can’t gain enough momentum to overcome the muted mixes this album favors. Actually, the fact that almost every song was mixed by a different person really stands out here, with varying levels across songs leading to a general lack of cohesion. Occasionally, the tracks seem to blur together into a gloriously garbled mass, and many of them are too tepid to hold the listener’s attention.
“You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around” is darker in a different way, with lyrics about suicide that mimic the structure of a threat or warning, but Grimes says reference a mythical angel. “IDORU,” the final song on the standard album, is a sparkling ode to unrequited love. Punctuated by literal bird song, it feels out of place on the record, then again, it’s hard to determine what belongs here and what doesn’t by the four additional mixes in the deluxe edition, which only further dilute the song ideas, instead of amplifying them.
Miss Anthropocene faced a series of delays, due to conflicts with her label 4AD, and the death of Boucher’s longtime manager and friend, Lauren Valencia. The sadness and darkness of losing someone so close to the camp hangs heavy over the album, and has clearly informed a lot of the subject matter. But ultimately, Miss Anthropocene feels like the promising seedlings for four or five different projects. A scattershot feel indicates the record could’ve benefitted from a few more months of fine-tuning, and mirrors the current upheaval in Grimes’ life, as she potentially navigates a controversial new partnership and prepares to be a mother. Ambitious as always, with all the other factors of celebrity at play, Grimes can’t quite live up to her past — in more ways than one.
Miss Anthropocene is out now via 4AD. Get it here.