U.S. Girls’ Heavy Light Overflows with Empathy
Meghan Remy looks inward on her follow up to In a Poem UnlimitedMusic Reviews U.S. Girls
If Heavy Light were released five years ago, it wouldn’t be considered a political album. Thankfully (or unfortunately) not even a casual listener in 2020 would miss Meghan Remy’s cutting commentary, a convention of her music that’s become quintessential in her over 10-year musical career.
Her most referential work to date, Heavy Light is defined by an inward-facing well of civic unrest, with Remy foregoing the prescriptive style of her manifesto-like 2018 album In a Poem Unlimited. The record’s name is itself a reference to Franz Kafka (“Faith, like a guillotine. As heavy as light.”), and Remy merges the ideals of the realist movement with narratives of experiential, hometown frustration. There’s a clear reference to Bruce Springsteen (instead of being “Born to Run,” Remy would say she’s “Born to Lose”) throughout Heavy Light, with Springsteen’s current E Street Band saxophonist Jake Clemons interjecting a soul-rousing solo in lead single “Overtime.”
It’s here, after the only two songs on Heavy Light that even slightly resemble Poem (“4 American Dollars” and “Overtime”), that Remy begins to build the conscience-focused rhetoric of the record. Largely, the album is a move to activism of consent: She isn’t making assumptions about what people want or how they feel; they have to want it too, and need to get there in their own right. Instead of writing a singular narrative of oppression, Remy shares her own story to urge consciousness from listeners, while injecting sound collages of people sharing their own personal experiences scattered throughout the album. And it’s hopefully resonant. She’s aware that this plurality of narrative is a more truthful way to write music about resistance, and manifests as an outreached hand instead of a pointed finger.
On “The Most Hurtful Thing,” voices of men and women flit in and out like a polite crowd. “I would only get uglier,” a woman says. “I was told I would spend an eternity in hell,” a man muses simultaneously. “It’s still in there.” Whether intentional or a result of sheer statistics, every story is predicated on abusive parenting or evangelical prejudice. This leads into “Denise, Don’t Wait,” a gospel-influenced song that could have fit in easily on Patti Smith’s Easter. Led by marimba and strings, Remy considers her complex relationship with her mother, a struggle she seemingly continues to contend with.
“The Color of Your Childhood Room” is self-explanatory, yet bizarrely impressionistic in its brief, 27-second exploration of memory. These sound art sketches recall Glasser’s Sextape EP, similarly using multiple retrospectives to create a collaborative, global story—only instead of an inquiry into formative sexual experiences as a form of violence, it’s a Marxist dissection of the oppression we’re born into, raised on and continue to battle well into adulthood.
“Woodstock ’99” might as well be a David Bowie piano ballad, deployed ironically to compare Remy’s memories of the event to a friend’s. “You watched it all on pay-per-view / Stationary cameras giving you a private view,” she sings, implying a sort of voyeurism. A complete disaster marked by multiple cases of sexual assaults and violent fires, Woodstock ‘99 was the original Fyre Festival, regretfully remembered by Sheryl Crow as “an aggressive, macho energy full of discontentment.” “What does it say about us? Our mothers? Their TVs? Our looks?” Remy sings before, bizarrely, diving right into the still-ridiculous chorus of “MacArthur Park” popularized by Donna Summer, which may as well be the antithesis of what the straight white men of the Woodstock ’99 crowd wanted in music. Hyperfeminine and a queer staple, “MacArthur Park” is unapologetically disco performed by a glamorous black performer with melodrama. It feels like a callback to a formative moment of rage.
There will be fans disappointed that Heavy Light doesn’t build on In a Poem Unlimited in expected ways. Besides the obvious anti-capitalist sentiment on opening track “4 American Dollars,” Heavy Light lacks the immediacy of her previous work. Instead, it trades Poem’s jagged punchiness for overflowing empathy, coalescing as a meditative and challenging album. What is ideology without the people behind it, or the stories of lives impacted by corruption, after all?
The record is arresting and unnerves in a way only possible from personal anecdotes as opposed to Poem’s parables—it doesn’t speak for everyone, like a fable might, but it does speak for a lot of people. In fact, a great portion of Heavy Light is spent with the spotlight off Remy herself, either left blurry or focusing on the myriad guest vocalists conducted by Kritty Uranowski. For Meghan Remy, “pop” is just short for “populist.”
Austin Jones is an intern at Paste. He writes about music, videogames and queer issues. He’s an avid fan of electronic and pop music, horror games, Joanna Newsom and ’80s-’90s anime. You can follow him on Twitter @belfryfire.