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With 'In a Poem Unlimited,' U.S. Girls makes disco fit for doomsday

music review

Meghan Remy released her latest studio album as U.S. Girls, "In a Poem Unlimited," Feb. 16 on the label 4AD.
Meghan Remy released her latest studio album as U.S. Girls, "In a Poem Unlimited," Feb. 16 on the label 4AD.

Although she releases music under the name U.S. Girls, Meg Remy is something of an outsider to her native country. Since moving to Canada in 2010, Remy has based her now-ironically-titled project in Toronto, and from that vantage point she’s turned a critical eye onto the political turmoil of her southern neighbor.

It’s this perspective that is reflected in the cover artwork of her latest album, “In a Poem Unlimited,” which was released Feb. 16. Designed in part by Robert Beatty — whose past work includes the equally striking art of Kesha’s “Rainbow” and Tame Impala’s “Currents” — the extreme close-up of Remy’s face, wide-eyed and streaked with tears, seems to survey the state of the world with an unspeakable sadness. The record that follows is cut from the same mold, but it’s never fatalistic. Rather, the tracks of “In a Poem Unlimited” form an exhilarating journey from end to end, showcasing Remy’s evolution from lo-fi experimentalist into pop visionary.

U.S. Girls’ output has spanned over a decade now, but it wasn’t until 4AD released “Half Free” in 2015 that Remy’s work began to see a wider audience. (That album was nominated for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize the following year.) Earlier U.S. Girls releases tended to center around warped, looped samples and twisted takes on traditional pop, but for “In a Poem Unlimited,” Remy expanded her sound, inviting to the studio jazz collective The Cosmic Range alongside a slew of longtime collaborators. The new album continues Remy’s streak of clever political commentary, too — indeed, one of the strongest tracks from “Half Free” was a reggae shuffle that doubled as an anti-war screed, assuming the perspective of a widowed military wife.

Of course, hardly a day has gone by in the last two years without an artist bemoaning our current political moment in some way or another, so the label of “protest” or “political” music has become increasingly dubious (and probably useless). Even more, the utility of art as a tool of social change can seem questionable. In a recent Reddit AMA, Remy was acutely aware of this dilemma, writing, “It’s hard to be making work and then trying to present it to the world as something worthy of time when the whole world around us is on fire.”

“In a Poem Unlimited” succeeds, though, precisely because it avoids the pitfalls of protest music. For one, Remy’s messages are couched in dense arrangements — benefited by the presence of a full band — that capture attention better than any sloganeering could. Most of the tracks on the album are, at their core, immediate earworms, recalling both Madonna and Giorgio Moroder. But Remy always endows each track with a tangible urgency creeping on the fringes, whether it’s an outburst of distortion or a squelching saxophone.

Lead single and highlight “M.A.H.” (originally released in October as “Mad As Hell”) may be the most indicative of the album’s ethos. The shortest proper song on the album, “M.A.H.” has all the strengths of U.S. Girls condensed into three minutes: With a tease of an intro that hints at the Ronettes, the song immediately shifts into a stair-stepping disco with an infectiously catchy chorus and keyboard textures that could have been lifted from “Heart of Glass,” all carried along by an elastic vocal performance from Remy.

Listen a little closer, though, and you’ll notice “M.A.H.” isn’t a typical kiss-off track but in fact a withering tirade against none other than our 44th president — yes, the one many people are missing right about now. “I fell, nice and clean, the way you portrayed yourself to me,” she sings. “Through that screen, I wanted to believe everything.” Like the rest of “In a Poem Unlimited,” “M.A.H.” is dance music fit for doomsday, a fact that’s only confirmed by the music video for the single, which features Remy quite literally dancing atop mushroom clouds. It’s a testament to her songwriting ability that these gestures never feel too on-the-nose, tempered by the playful yet genuine musical homages to the past.

This quality means the melodies of “In a Poem Unlimited” often hit before the message, which requires a deep dive into the lyric booklet to fully unravel. Fortunately, Remy’s lyrical ability — reference points include “Hamlet” and “Citizen Kane,” and she has spoken of her admiration for poets John Berryman and Anne Carson — pulls equal weight. On the eight-minute closer, “Time,” Remy repeats a single line over a frenetic funk groove: “When there is nothing, there is still time,” a mantra that begins to sound less like a reassurance and more like a threat with each instance.

As a final track, “Time” is reminiscent of Funkadelic’s “Wars of Armageddon,” a dissonant, discordant end to an album whose moments of tenderness and acerbity come in equal measure. As far as protest music goes, “In a Poem Unlimited” is one of the few records that — like Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” did in 1971 — make you want to get up and fight as much as they make you want to get up and dance. Surveying the environmental destruction, abuses of power and never-ending wars that mark our world in 2018, Meg Remy has responded with an album that is nothing if not worthy of our time.


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