Meghan Remy’s seventh album as U.S. Girls, In a Poem Unlimited, is definitively her best yet. The U.S. Girls sound has been consistently evolving with each record, taking tiny steps towards more polished indie-pop music and away from the experimental low-tech noise of Remy’s first two albums in particular. Once she started incorporating a vocal and lyrical element into the music in 2011 – three years after the first U.S. Girls record – each successive album has featured more accessible singles and sounds.
This all sounds as if I’m relieved to hear an experimental art rocker has turned into another conventional, easy pop act, but that’s not the case at all. While Poem has arrived at the doorstep of “pop” and sounds almost completely divorced from the first U.S. Girls release in 2008, this sanding off of rough edges has enabled Remy’s musical skills and lyrical content to finally truly shine. The length of Poem is still just under 40 minutes, as nearly all her releases are, and the songs still carry that unique tension between up-tempo music and disturbed lyrics but, because of the progression of style, the music and Remy’s vocals are reaching into new territory that invigorates the listening experience.
The songs – nine full-lengths and two minuscule interludes – are each immediately distinct from one another and explore a particular sound. In the past some U.S. Girls tracks tended to bleed together, with broadly similar instrumentation and vocal performances, but here each track seamlessly flows into the next while remaining separate and memorable. Remy sounds similar to techno-pop idols Goldfrapp on “Velvet 4 Sale” and “Poem,” gets groovy in “Rage of Plastics,” sings a killer hook in “M.A.H.” and “Time” and gets into a bit of R&B and gospel in “Rosebud” and “Pearly Gates” respectively.
Every song is eminently danceable, in particular the final song “Time,” which is the longest at over seven minutes and largely instrumental for the back half. Despite the infectious energy of the music, Remy has not changed her interest in the darker side of life, which inspires her lyrics. “Velvet 4 Sale” ponders the idea of a situation in which women could “instill in [men] the fear that comes with being prey,” while the later track, “Pearly Gates,” digs into that “feeling of being prey” when the singer arrives at the titular heavenly location and finds that she is still regarded as an object who must trade sexual favors with St. Peter for heavenly salvation. On that track guest vocalist James Baley contributes to the chorus the mantra “never, never be safe even if you’re in the Gates/ give it up, you’re just some man’s daughter.” Mining the relationships between men and women continues in “Incidental Boogie,” which if you can imagine it, sounds a bit like the Cardigans’ “Lovefool” blended with Nine Inch Nails, to get in the mind of a woman who has left one abusive relationship only to enter into another because “life made no sense without a beating…/and life was just too quiet/ without no one screaming at me.”
Remy gets a little more overtly political in a handful of standout tracks, the first being “Rage of Plastics.” This track, backed by furious horns, is sung from the perspective of a woman working at a plastics plant and slowly being poisoned by that toxic environment. As she sings about her infertility and sick husband, she tells that “making this living just brings about dying.”
The track that follows “Plastics” is the album’s first single, “M.A.H.” (Mad as Hell). This song is so pop, and begins with an imitation of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” (“once I had a love…”) that is as good as the original. The song is explicitly about Remy’s “relationship” with Barack Obama through the last eight years. Remy, a Chicago-native, tracks her journey from “local love” that came easily to watching his “hair go grey, that stressful manly shade” and witnessing his disappointing introduction of drone warfare, all hellish situations hidden by his “winner’s smile.” The song soars along with a delightful, but also fervent energy, laced into the hook “As if you couldn’t tell, I’m mad as hell.” When half-listened to, it can work as a jam whenever you’re personally mad as hell about anything, but when you listen closer you’re rewarded with a layered examination of serious disillusionment, the complexity of which is exemplified in the tension between the energy of the performance and the words Remy sings.
“Poem,” perhaps the best song on the album, is very Goldfrapp, with dashes of Robyn, Kylie and Madonna, along with whole lot of euphoric pop delivery. The song basically examines why humans make everything hard for ourselves, when “we know what’s right/ we didn’t get it from a book or a site/ we know it in our bones/ all blood flows the same/ so why did we end up this way?” It’s a great question, particularly at a time when it does not appear that people even know what’s right anymore, or have decided to toss aside morals in favor of doing whatever it takes to have the last word or feel they “won.” “Poem” is a pop song, but it could be very useful – particularly combined with “Time” – in working up a dancehall sweat when you feel the urge to break some faces.
The album does have a few “filler” songs, but that is not to say they’re bad. Rather, they just fade a little bit more alongside the more powerful tracks. “Rosebud” is the slowest song on the album, and takes its inspiration from the titular object and emotional key of Citizen Kane, and “L-Over” details a break-up with a man the singer compares to a stone. There are two short interludes that don’t add so much to the album besides a quick breather between tracks.
Finally, the last lengthy song “Time” starts out with a quick and energetic rhythm section behind variations on the phrases “when there is nothing there is still time [and] when there is something there is no time.” The last few minutes remove lyrics from the equation and act as a kind of frenzied emotional release. Remy’s sung mantras linger in your head for hours afterward until you feel compelled to start again from the beginning, finding yourself lost in the world of U.S. Girls and finally able to do so in the best way possible.