Intersection of Politics and Pop
Meg Remy’s “noise-pop” project, U.S. Girls, returns with her most accessible and melodious record to date. In a Poem Unlimited explores themes of gender empowerment and inequality, political and personal heartbreak and general societal pain, delivered alongside a wide swath of pop-heavy, ’90s-era dance tracks. In the past, Remy has described pop music as “bait”—a ploy to pull listeners into more complex issues. The tracks that make up In a Poem Unlimited draw on so many influences that they can be hard to pin down. Even within one song, Remy can slide between different genres and eras, as if attempting to dodge characterization entirely. And that might be kind of the point: if pop music exists as a tool for listeners to access more complex issues, then Remy’s attempt at shifting between varying layers of pop-inspired hooks serves to keep that listener even more engaged.
An American expatriate living in Toronto, Remy has been recording under the tongue-in-cheek name, U.S Girls, for over ten years. Her voice has a quality that is equal parts Debbie Harry of Blondie and Annie Clarke of St. Vincent, yet the texture that Remy brings to these tracks is something all of its own. On Unlimited, Remy is backed yet again by the Cosmic Range, a funk/freeform jazz collective also from Toronto; the two entities came together for 2015s Half Free, a release that was a little more close-to-home than Unlimited. On this new album, the full band seems to get more creative input—there are moments of pure sonic bliss on here—and the result is a unique sound that oscillates between the old and the new.
Album opener, “Velvet 4 Sale,” has a Primal Scream vibe to it, but only before the violent lyrics take over. Those too, are mercurial and difficult to discern. However, just one glance at the words to this song will leave you feeling a little uneasy. “Instill in them the fear that comes with being prey,” Remy sings over a saxophone that soars across the song’s closing chorus. The song “Rage of Plastics” picks up in the same saxophone-drenched territory where “Velvet” left off, but with some dynamic guitar effects to connect the verses (which describe gender inequality within the context of a refinery worker) to an even more grandiose sax-solo—as some have pointed out, the most masculine of musical passages.
The next track, “M.A.H,” opens like an Eno-esque groove, before dropping into disco-funk territory. The song, originally titled “Mad As Hell,” directly addresses the pitfalls and failures of the Obama presidency, and in doing so, displays a unique brand of slippery songwriting. With a very Blondie-esque hook, Remy shares her political heartbreak: “As if you couldn’t tell, I’m mad as hell,” she sings over a bass-heavy chorus. “Rosebud” is a sleek nod to the toxic masculinity of Orson Welles’ titular character in Citizen Kane. Produced over orchestral arrangements, the song has a faint lounge style to it—a departure from the aesthetic of earlier U.S Girls releases. “What is your Rosebud, you’ve got to know” comes the refrain, parsed over a groovy breakbeat.
There are some really innovative and thought-provoking aspects of the production on this album. While “L-Over” takes after the more withdrawn, downtempo facets to ’90s pop, songs like “Pearly Gates” and “Time” go for the musical jugular. The hip-hop DNA of “Pearly Gates” is infused with a heavenly guitar-led jam, and “Time” drifts around Talking Heads romp, Zappa-style discord, Gang of Four and then back to Talking Heads again all within a matter of minutes.
The tracks on In a Poem Unlimited are so well assembled and seamlessly brought together that the album plays like the most polished and accessible U.S Girls album that Meg Remy has released. There are elements from nearly every corner of the pop music spectrum, and paired with Remy’s venomous songwriting and penchant for lo-fi sound, one could imagine where Unlimited could fail or fall short of what it set out to do, but Remy pulls it off with one of the most interesting records of the year.