There was a time—the 1990s—when the word alternative meant a lot in music. But what? The term came to encompass not only the conscientious angst of Nirvana but also that band’s corporate knockoffs; not only the paranoia of Radiohead but also the treacle of Goo Goo Dolls; not only the quiet of Tori Amos but also the thunder of Deftones. Eventually the distinction between alternative and underground or independent became clear. While proclaiming to rage against the machine, alt built its own machine—one as roomy and pleasure-focused as the mainstream’s, but grumpier, and with chain wallets.
Alt sounds are now creeping back into vogue, but the antisocial posture has softened. Post Malone’s moans, Billie Eilish’s haunted production, the late Juice Wrld’s warbles, and even Lil Nas X’s sampling choices have swirled rock angst, flavor-gel-like, into the rap-pop cultural core. When such artists air frustration with the world, it is often not the frustration of a rebel or an outsider but that of a participant, fretting at how they’re faring in the race for clout and crowns. The subject of the music tends to be dominance; no best-selling albums feature anything akin to, say, when Jonathan Davis of Korn literally cried for minutes on “Daddy.” Now arrives Grimes’s stunning fifth album, Miss Anthropocene, an end-to-end tour of ’90s alternative that updates not only another era’s sound but its cultish, self-annihilating spirit.
Grimes is both a world builder and a world destroyer. With the wandering beats of her 2012 album, Visions, Montreal’s Claire Boucher conquered and arguably helped kill what came after alternative: 2000s indie. Indie maintained a cryptic relationship to emotional expression, but with Grimes’s influence, it couldn’t deny the bubblegum melodies and R&B rhythms it had long spurned. At the same time that Lady Gaga was weirding up the charts and Beyoncé was deepening them, Grimes asked Pitchfork readers why they didn’t consider Mariah Carey to be as much of an innovator as Animal Collective. Snob paradigms haven’t been the same since. Grimes then declined to take the lane—cross-clique megastar—that she seemed to open up. As artists-first-entertainers-second tend to do, she instead chased her own obsessions at her own pace.
The latest of those obsessions are Grimes’s high-school faves, as listed in a 2015 New Yorker profile of her: Nine Inch Nails, the Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, and Tool. Miss Anthropocene is a work of metal and rubber, factory clangs and ghostly screams, bullets with butterfly wings and empires of dirt. Sometimes Grimes ventures to sunnier or less macho ’90s subcultural sounds such as kandi raves and Lilith Fair. As a listener, I feel the music hit my sense memory hard, but I often can’t place what, exactly, she’s twinging in my data bank. Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba”? The Trainspotting soundtrack? Browsing black-light posters at the mall? Yet the music’s power is not in the nostalgia. It’s in its novelty.
Whether with six-minute green-gas clouds (the opener “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth”), glitching folk gorgeousness (“Delete Forever”), or ecstatic drum and bass (“IDORU”), the album flips through coherent moods even as the underlying musical combinations baffle. The key to her success is in the way her distinctive voice—so high and soft that it can seem to waft away—sits amid her intricate laptop tinkering. Each song is baklava-dense with layers, and when she hits on some delicious combination of elements, she’s generous with it. The brutal bass pulsation of “Darkseid,” for example, is that track’s main event, on top of which Taiwan’s 潘PAN sprinkles furious cybernetic rapping. The astonishing “4ÆM” simply toggles between two contrasting thickets of psychedelic electronica. Such tunes rank among the most addictive listening experiences so far this year, yet it feels strange to even identify them as songs.
The rollout for Miss Anthropocene has, however, directed focus not toward Grimes the brilliant musician but toward Grimes the controverisal public figure and political presence. Her old crunchy image—DIY, progressive, feminist—has been tested by her romance with the billionaire Elon Musk. Public statements in which she enthused about technology replacing humans came off as bizarre and callous. Miss Anthropocene’s title supposedly refers to the name of a goddess Grimes created to personify the threat of climate change, but you can read through the album’s lyrics and come away with no eco message. Rather, Grimes’s words—allusive, sparse, and repetitious—profess a sexy nihilism. Her new songs celebrate drugs, violence, and the apocalypse, all of which perhaps constitute the agenda of Miss Anthropocene but also the agenda of Rob Zombie.
Indeed, the way in which her supposedly timely concerns are actually timeless glower-rock clichés speaks to what makes this music so seductive. The pop mainstream serves up shiny idols proclaiming an easy, empowering idea of individualism; here, the closest Grimes gets to aligning with that aesthetic is on the closer, “IDORU,” an unnervingly happy love song to a robot. The rest of the album fetishizes self-loathing and existential nothingness—but on the way to a kind of collective comfort. On the eerie ballad “New Gods,” Grimes yearns for a higher power while drawling, “I wear black eyeliner / black attire yeah.” The uniform of goth here is just that: a uniform, signifying submission. Whether the submission is to AI overlords, environmental catastrophe, or any given Ozzfest headliner, the sound with which it’s rendered has the same dark pull.