Review Summary: filtered fangs
It's easy to hate Grimes. From the name, inspired by the genre tagging system on MySpace and later unofficially shortened to the scientific symbol for the speed of light, to her shameless mixing of influences (Mariah Carey, Joanna Newsom, Aphex Twin, Outkast, etc.), everything about her aesthetic seems to rub people the wrong way. There are certainly some valid criticisms, like her lack of recognition of her own privilege and her blindness to some of the history of the primary genres she works with. However, most of this discourse has defaulted to routine, sexist, and narrative-fetishizing tropes, particularly after the success of 2015's dance-pop Art Angels
. The reasons so many people hate Claire Boucher - the way she is unabashedly online and imaginative within her art on visual and auditory levels, her lack of respect for the difference between indie and pop, and especially her outspoken feminist critiques of music's sacred cows - are the reasons so many of her fans love her. In 2020, it's no longer accurate to say nobody else sounds like Grimes, but the duplicates are just that. For the first time, though, she sounds like she's copying herself.
is the most derivative Grimes record yet. It sounds like someone had access to her catalog and calculated the average. Both Visions
took the chance to refine and redefine her music, transforming her from just another Cocteau Twins-aping rando making weird amateur dream pop into someone with international popstar potential completely in control of her own sound. But here, tracks sound like B-sides from Anthropocene
's predecessors, and the entire theme feels like Visions
' spooky hazed-out night drive mixed with Angels
's dramatic and choral energy boost. Very little about this feels particularly like a step forward, let alone a reinvention. That said, if the biggest problem with your album is that it sounds too much like two of the best pop albums of the decade, you're not doing too bad. In fact, I wouldn't say anything on this album as "bad." At worst, it's a bit over-reliant on dull rock standards, especially when she steers away from anthems and into the deep cuts, like "My Name Is Dark," where the flow of the album as a whole really has to do the heavy lifting. Individual tracks are often great, and everyone who's been waiting for five years will be pleased to hear that her genre-blurring style hasn't faded at all. "Delete Forever" may sound just like her recent material, but with a vocal-chopping chorus, some of her best lyrics, and a surprising mix of 808s and banjo, it's so fun that it's hard to care. "4AM" starts off inconspicuous enough, with the slow soaring vocals you've probably come to associate with her over a vaguely tropical beat, but is soon taken over by a crazy infectious and much higher BPM breakbeat that's as exciting as the best drum and bass. "IDORU" is an entrancing seven minutes, a fun bliss ride between synthpop and shoegaze that really does sound like adoration and aidoru. Even if this is the creative low point of her mainstream career so far, with her fantastic track record, that's not saying much.
The real problem with Anthropocene
is what it implies for her future. Continuing on this path will likely lead to highly diminishing returns, as the ball of singular energy she once held slips out of her grasp. There's a disjointed structure to this, the spirits of her past battling to control the overall design. Is it ethereal wave or electropop? Was it engineered to fit into a seamless whole (as the alien-baby single covers she designed for the last five singles might have you think) or did it receive a bunch of last-minute changes (electrorock anthem and single "We Appreciate Power" was reassigned to bonus track and the tracklist was drastically rearranged from a leak)? Does it want you to feel good about our society’s potential or to get pissed off about it? It's really hard to feel like Boucher is sure about anything here, which is disappointing given how her certainty used to define her. The stated theme of this album is to "make climate change fun" so it is a "character" rather than an "abstract doom." There's something to that here, but it's obscured underneath all the attempts to please everyone. It was easy to feel the drugged-out easing through pain of Visions
and the passive-aggressive feminist rage of Angels
, but efforts to personify global warming don't really come through on first, second, or tenth listens here. That being said, a new level of darkness and anger does show itself for the first time. This is where I think her focus could lead to new results - in her aggression. With her omnivorous genre ability, knack for songwriting, and willingness to feature unknown artists (and known, with an Uzi collab on the way), her next work deserves high expectations. Even as her career takes a slight dip here, it's still clear that she has what it takes to create something uniquely threatening. She'll have to put in effort, but if anyone could do it, love her or hate her, it's Grimes.