Although it’s hardly a new debate, recent years have seen an uptick in snappish back and forth about the wisdom of separating artists from the art they create. Primarily driven, of course, by the near-constant lifting of heavy rocks to reveal the wormlike behavior of entitled men underneath, the current discourse feels like a morass of unsettling uncertainty when it comes to the question of whether, say, Annie Hall can still be comfortably viewed without thinking about the insidious accusations hurled at its prominent creator. But there’s another version of the modern dilemma, driven by the open-book qualities of artists’ lives, the phone in their back pocket a conduit to impulsive sharing of thoughts that suggest a different version of the idealized soul listeners, viewers, and readers create in meeting the creations. Do the artists’ assortments of perceived transgressions against our faith in them then turn into a projection onto their art?
All of the above is the longer method of conceding that I’m not sure I can trust my impression that Miss Anthropocene, the new album from Grimes, is accomplished but hampered by insularity. The ethereal melodies bucked up with barbed electropop struts are unmistakably her handiwork, the line firmly drawn from vibrant predecessors Visions and Art Angels. The layers of sound turn into interweaving bands and then back into thick slabs, seemingly in the time it takes for a meditation-suited deep breath in and out. And her capacity for lush, head-spinning invention emerges throughout the album. As an example, “4ÆM” is propulsive and rhythmic, like the soundtrack to a Bollywood dance number in a Philip K. Dick fever dream. No one but Grimes can pull off that sort of blistering creativity presented with tight control.
But Grimes’s meticulous nature shows its first signs of going adrift on Miss Anthropocene, with genuine threats of stultifying mechanics. “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth” is like a fully digitized Kate Bush disappearing drowsily into herself, and “My Name is Dark” sounds like “Kill V. Maim,” the powerhouse track from Art Angels, taken through the Garbage filter, though I concede that comparison comes to mind in part because of the recurring line “You stupid girl.” There’s even a clunkiness to her sideways tributes to comic book creator Jack Kirby, with tracks “Darkseid” and “New Gods” taking their titles after elements of his career-pinnacle Fourth World saga. If Grimes drew inspiration for the songs in any deeper way than borrowing the cool names, it’s basically indiscernible.
Arguably, Grimes is best on this album when she’s keeping the songs a little leaner, built on distinctive pieces, like the almost Petty-ish acoustic guitar riff of “Delete Forever.” The other end of the continuum is “Before the fever,” which is a bunch of sonic ideas smeared together into a globby mess, like Zola Jesus without a capacity for shrewd editing. And I have difficulty listening to that misfiring track without thinking of the distance Grimes has traveled from the scrappy original of just a few years back, posting rough videos shot in cramped rooms as part of impromptu music releases. I have my doubts — and personal prejudices that drive those doubts, it should be noted — as to whether curling up with a knucklehead billionaire and tweeting anti-union vitriol fosters an environment similarly fruitful for creativity.
At her previous peaks, I was convinced Grimes was laying the paving stones that led to the future of pop music. Miss Anthropocene might still be crafted with obvious skill, but the trailblazing quality of her art is dissipating. Any hint of expansive outreach is a whispery ghost, and its starting to feel like Grimes is making music behind too many heavily secured, foot-thick doors.