Bless This Mess
The upshot of living through this chaotic digital age is that if nothing else, we have a whole civilisation’s worth of music to delve through before the planet dies. You can hear this as a silver lining around Meg Remy’s long-running recording project U.S. Girls; though a sense of impending doom haunts her work, she’s in the habit of turning all the world’s ills into lovingly-crafted slices of leftfield disco, drawing from the annals of music history to create a strain of pop that is anything but disposable.
Originally from Chicago, Remy lives in Toronto these days, where she operates as a multidisciplinary artist, musician and writer. She’s a chameleonic presence, whose voice can encompass a range of textures, from sepulchral groan to spangled Ronette glamour. In portraits, she stares at you fixedly with a blue-eyed, steely gaze, as if challenging you to cross her. The music can feel like that too. This is pop created to rail at injustice, to confront trauma and resist the sensation of being at the mercy of oppressive, failing infrastructure. It can also summon demigods like Prince, Blondie and Springsteen in the same breath as Greek mythology and Samuel Beckett.
For all its scope, though, Bless This Mess ended up being very much a housebound record, created under a strict set of parameters – lockdown, and giving birth to twins. And as Remy’s body adapted to pregnancy, so did her habits as a musician. She found she couldn’t breathe as deeply, so she changed the way she sang. Her body became yet another instrument; the props and paraphernalia of parenthood a new set of tools to experiment with. She samples a breast pump in ‘Pump’, which recreates a frazzled exchange with a nurse about how to get milk into a child’s tiny mouth. Accompanied by a hefty bassline, Remy captures the absurdity of bringing more human beings into the world and having to coax them through basic functions. The whole thing almost tips into parody, at least up until a gently-intoned outro about the mysterious connection between parent and child. Finally, she finds herself repeating the word “you” until it starts to lose all meaning.
This blurring of identities between parent and child might also be what inspired her to return to her own youth in the album’s title track, which dishes up the kind of Odeon blockbuster piano chords seldom heard this side of 1998. The overdose of kitsch starts to make sense once you watch the music video, which stars an earnest teen Remy serenading the camcorder, old footage manipulated to neatly sync up with the new lyrics. It’s a moment in which she can feel whole, recognising herself in her analogue reflection, still staring dead into the camera, still putting her vulnerabilities on show. Similar themes are taken on in ‘Futures Bet’: a reminder to be empathetic towards yourself, and to stop obsessing over whatever happened before: “Goodbye history! Why don’t we let it all be a mystery / That we never sort out?”
In Remy’s case, there’s plenty of history. Newcomers to U.S. Girls may be shocked when they first browse through their vast back catalogue, both at the scale of Remy’s ambition and, at times, the texture of the music itself. Debut release Introducing (2008) is made up of the kind of industrial noise and warped pedal loops that might sit naturally in the cold light of a gallery, but are slightly daunting for someone who has parachuted in expecting disco anthems. With each album, however, Remy’s musicianship and lyrics have become less opaque, and more about putting a fresh spin on her own kaleidoscope of influences. With the kind of messages U.S. Girls want to put out, stealth has also been key: by embellishing her music with elements of funk, hip-hop, glam-rock, and deceptively glittery production, she can repackage fiery critiques of modern America under the guise of irresistible earworms. Or maybe it’s a way of peeling back the avant-garde, cerebral layer of earlier releases, and inviting listeners to experience the music with their whole being. To dance, rather than just chin-stroking over what it all means.
More evolution followed. 2015’s Half Free saw U.S. Girls enlisting other vocalists for the first time, which marked the start of a more communal approach. That album seemed to bridge the apparently divergent sides of Remy’s vision: though the foundations of the record remained as lo-fi and spare as a crackling tape deck, there were also discernible vocal melodies, gossipy phone interludes and macabre storytelling to match The Shangri-Las. In a Poem Unlimited (2018) brought this spirit of collaboration to new heights, with a whole jazz-funk collective appointed to bring each composition shimmering to life. Two years on, Heavy Light counterpointed disco hooks with barbed lyrics about early 21st century capitalism and the world’s imminent collapse. Despite the pessimistic outlook, she likened the process of making Heavy Light to that of a musical summer camp, with singalongs, camaraderie and everyone bouncing off each other’s ideas.
Bless This Mess was a far more isolated affair, though as someone who has always operated under a DIY ethic, that didn’t ruffle her much. But it got her questioning people’s desire to flock together in cities in the first place. She had been the kind of suburban teenager who grows up seduced by the fantasy of towering buildings and neon lights, only to arrive and find herself barely scraping by. Why bother? Once cities stopped performing any clear function during lockdown, she wondered if they even had a future beyond the hollow slogans of real estate. But as ‘So Typically Now’ makes clear, the answer to that disillusionment shouldn’t be simply fleeing upstate, as many of her well-off contemporaries have done. Beyond its damning message, the track’s Italo-style hooks, billowy backing vocals and crackle of gated reverb nearly make you sad for all the house parties Remy’s ex-neighbours will miss out on by absconding to a soundproofed white-picket-fence life. Elsewhere ‘St James Way’ also insists on making peace with your habitat, rather than getting enticed by property pipe-dreams: “I don’t want a castle, just a door to shut / She says finding food will be tough enough.”
Whether you’re in a high-rise or a converted farmhouse, staying home can nonetheless mean settling for a watered-down version of some experiences. ‘Screen Face’ takes the hackneyed theme of online dating and adds its own maudlin spin. Barely a flirtation, it plays out more like an elegy for the lost sensations of the pre-Tinder world. There’s a gloomy romance in lines as clunky and matter-of-fact as “Your phone is dying, and I’m dying too”, highlighting the fact that no device can really be a stand-in for flesh and blood, and pawing at a screen won’t bring your object of desire any closer. Remy’s enthralment with synthetic surfaces carries right through to the use of midi instrumentation throughout the album: both a playful artistic choice and a nod to the simulated experience of making music far from the studio, with collaboration limited to email and her producer husband (Slim Twig).
For Remy, surfaces aren’t merely skin-deep. ‘Tux (Your Body Fills Me, Boo)’ is one of the album’s highlights: a plea from a rejected tuxedo to its owner, begging to be taken out on the town again and shown off. The sentiment will strike a chord with anyone who might have spent lockdown feeling like a tired garment, sighing over distant memories and struggling to find purpose in a closed-off, domestic existence. But it’s also a celebration of draping yourself in the most dazzling layers possible, which is Remy’s speciality. Best follow her lead and put on your bow tie tonight – even if it’s just to sit in your room spinning Prince records.
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