Meghan Remy has a talent for cooing harsh truths in a way that may tempt listeners into overlooking those truths.
She sings “You didn’t choose to be born/And I never heard of anyone who has” on “I.O.U.” without a trace of scorn. And on Heavy Light, her seventh album as U.S. Girls, Remy concerns herself as ever with the present-ness of being a woman—as subject and object, seen and dismissed.
U.S. Girls is something like Olivia Newton-John fronting Elephant’s Memory. Saxophones honk in unexpected places. A commitment to knock-kneed boogie predominates. Remy’s sexual-political postures show up in the lyrics, but also in the way she conceives music. Background vocals egg on pianos, and the material has a dearth of conventional guitar solos—when one shows up on “The Quiver to the Bomb” the percussion and chanting shout it down. In the credits Remy awards special thanks to “vocal doula” Kritty Uranowski; she earns it.
Raucous, adept at switching from the ruminative to the euphoric, Heavy Light makes for a damn good time. Over a flippity-floppity beat anchored to a clavinet, “4 American Dollars” is the giddiest song with the refrain “rupees and yen and rubles/No dinero!” in music history. (Somebody create a dance remix right quick.) The vaguely Latin “And Yet It Moves/Y Se Mueve” and the baffling “Overtime” also raise serious heads of steam.
The quieter performances are creepier. The ballad “Woodstock ’99” interpolates “MacArthur Park” (yes, that “MacArthur Park”). “Denise, Don’t Wait,” one of the few songs ever written about mother-daughter rivalry, builds the drama with vibraphone and strings; every time Remy offers “I don’t think I can’t make it,” her musical control refutes the notion.
Some may balk at Remy’s approach. Heavy Light presents musical theater versions of pop songs, like the drum troupe of a magnet school playing Lady Gaga. Spoken-word interludes (“collages” in her words) like “The Most Hurtful Thing” belong on an album called Heavy Heavy. But popular music should try for sonic equivalents of Anne Carson and the best of Sylvia Plath: an interior voice bent on dramatizing itself. And on the evidence of “Red Ford Radio,” Remy still needs the big old world. “You leave me with the FM radio/FM radio, the only one I’ve ever known” is about as unassailable a bit of universalist humanism as art song can offer.