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U.S. Girls’ ‘Heavy Light’ is an urgent plea for solidarity

music review

U.S. Girls’ seventh album, “Heavy Light,” was released March 6 on 4AD.
U.S. Girls’ seventh album, “Heavy Light,” was released March 6 on 4AD.

Meg Remy always seems to return at exactly the right time.

Two years ago, her breakout album as U.S. Girls, “In a Poem Unlimited,” arrived in the wake of the initial #MeToo era and a year into the Trump presidency, a masterwork of righteous anger in the face of endless wars, sexual violence and climate catastrophe. It was an album-length dedication to the idea that a revolution without dancing isn’t a revolution worth having.

“Heavy Light” was released last Friday, March 6, but it already feels like we live in a different world than the one the album came into. With shocking speed, Americans have witnessed the social life of the entire nation effectively grind to a halt on a mass scale, and we’ve watched as the incapacity of our institutions to handle the threat of pandemic has become transparently, horrifyingly clear. When I reviewed “In a Poem Unlimited” in 2018, I observed that U.S. Girls “makes disco fit for doomsday.” This slogan no longer feels hyperbolic. It’s become clear that we are in uncharted territory, and it is still far too early to comprehend what the fallout will be.

Not that the stakes weren’t already high before “Heavy Light.” The question of whether our children and grandchildren will have a habitable future has only grown in urgency since “In a Poem Unlimited,” a concern that the cover art for “Heavy Light” visualizes eloquently: Remy, on what could be a beach or a barren planet, crouches next to a young girl, gazing beyond the edge of the frame. Even as darkness encroaches from all sides, the pair alone remains in light, as if it emanated from within. Behind, a sun sets. (Or is it rising?)

There was a time when it would have been unimaginable for Meg Remy to be accompanied by another person on the cover of one of her albums, much less in the music itself. U.S. Girls began as a highly idiosyncratic solo outlet for Remy, her distinctive voice rising out of a fog inhabited by revenants of long-forgotten girl-groups and dusty tape loops. Isolation was practically baked into the mix.

That changed with “In a Poem Unlimited,” which saw Remy expanding her circle of collaborators to include Toronto funk collective The Cosmic Range and a small slew of backup singers. Remy toured heavily behind that album, and live shows would regularly feature seven or more musicians sharing the stage. Fittingly, “Heavy Light” was recorded live in the studio, capturing the electricity and the collaborative energy of those performances. The recordings affirm what has now been evident for some time: U.S. Girls is no longer Remy’s project alone, but a collective, a true communal effort.

Two tracks on “Heavy Light” show this transformation most starkly: “State House (It’s a Man’s World)” and “Red Ford Radio,” which both appear on early U.S. Girls albums, in stripped-down, homespun forms. If the raw bizarreness of the original versions has been toned down, it doesn’t mean these comparatively fuller arrangements are any less effective. “State House,” in particular, is one of many tracks on “Heavy Light” that is sung by what almost sounds like a gospel choir, no one voice emerging in front of the others. In fact, Remy’s voice is rarely, if ever, the only presence in any of these songs. On the three spoken-word interludes scattered throughout the album, brief anonymous voices — narrating advice to their teenage self, memories of being hurt, the color of their childhood bedroom — quite literally circle and overlap each other in rounds. 

With the live approach of “Heavy Light,” it’s tempting to miss the crisp, pop-focused production of an album like “In a Poem Unlimited.” The new album is comparatively spare in its arrangements, but the choices are judicious. The chorus of voices that appear on each song of “Heavy Light” are undoubtedly the focus, driven along by a new emphasis on percussion: the bongos that propel “4 American Dollars” toward disco heaven, the bells and mallets that ripple in dark puddles across the lumbering highlight “Born to Lose,” the body-shaking bass drum and tambourine that drives each backbeat. “Woodstock ‘99” and “The Quiver to the Bomb,” meanwhile, find Remy channeling her best Bowie piano ballad.

Many of these songs aren’t as overtly political as tracks like “M.A.H.” (an indictment of the Obama era) or “Pearly Gates” (an elaborate allegory starring a gaslighting St. Peter). In place of that rage is a sense of individual reminiscence and collective caretaking, an acknowledgement that, in the midst of crisis, all we really have is each other. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it might be the nearest musical equivalent of Bernie Sanders’ now-famous mantra — “not me, us.”

Still, if anything has become clear in the last week, it’s that one’s suffering is never merely one’s own, that the health of one is mutually dependent on the health of all. “Heavy Light” is a plea for solidarity, and it couldn’t have been more urgent.

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