U.S. Girls – the project of singer/songwriter/art warrior Meg Remy and her band of merry conspirators – has returned to bless us with another record of shaggy grooves, deep political insight and creeping existential dread.
Heavy Lights title was inspired by Franz Kafka, the master of blending sociopolitical pressures with the frustration of surviving in a post-industrial world, and his popular quote: “A belief is like a guillotine. Just as heavy, just as light.”
While Remy’s lyrical concerns and thematic conceits may hang on that tension between the personal and the political issues of modern living, the music itself doesn’t give you any chance to wallow. Heavy Light is a marked departure from the swampy robo-voodoo-disco of her previous record, the rather excellent In a Poem Unlimited, and a turn towards a far more luxurious, exuberant, breathless blend of soul and funk, with many sincere gospel flourishes and a handful of gorgeous ballads.
Written and recorded while Remy was still on tour with the previous iteration of the band, add in its development with co-writers Basia Bulat and Rich Morel, this marks Heavy Light as the first U.S. Girls album to be completed entirely as a collective, rather than Remy trying to get the right job into the hands of the right person. Each being tasked with bringing their disparate talents into a harmonious union - which they've seamlessly achieved.
Opening with “4 American Dollars”, it’s just heaven from there; a pure, ecstatic plastic soul, right down to the chiming Philly Soul guitars and rapturous backing vocals. “Born to Lose” is one of a handful of tracks that evokes Patti Smith’s largely-forgotten 1997 collection Peace and Noise; from Remy’s impassioned, Smith-esque vocals to the clear-eyed spiritual lyrical focus. The subdued atmosphere extends out to the bewitching, earnest longing of “Denise, Don’t Wait”, and the haunting glow of “IOU”, which may as well be lit by the Moon for all of its seductive romanticism.
The album also offers reinterpretations of three old tracks: “Red Ford Radio”, from the 2010 LP Go Grey makes an appearance in a new guise with a haunted, ghostly thunder trailing behind it. It closes the album on a startling, unsettling note – listen to how claustrophobic Remy’s voice is, and how clamorous the instrumentation is. “Statehouse (It’s a Man’s World)” first appeared on the third U.S. Girls LP, U.S. Girls on KRAAK, and now surfaces here in a rapturous gospel reworking.
“Overtime”, from 2013 EP Free Advice Column, is transformed into a slice of insistent, pulse-pounding funk – with a special saxophone appearance by Jake Clemons, current E Street Band member and nephew of the legendary, sadly missed Clarence Clemons.
The closest track to the sound of the previous record comes on “And Yet It Moves/Y Se Mueve”, filled with Latin tropicália and funky percussion. It’s an album highlight on a record full of them. Across the rest, Heavy Light covers topics ranging from the personal (on “Woodstock ’99”, where Remy’s narrator compares her experience of that disastrous day with her friends) to the ‘planetary’, even on the conversational interludes - which add their own nostalgic kick. On “The Quiver To The Bomb”, the focus is on how short human history is in the grand scheme of universal expansion. There’s even some suitably cheap-sounding sci-fi synths and a dizzying vocal crescendo.
From a personal perspective, you might miss the electric-burn intensity of the lead guitars from In a Poem Unlimited, or you might miss the Iggy’s The Idiot-meets-Marc Bolan-and-Madonna-on-a-Tarantino-soundtrack vibes, but ultimately, there’s just as much to enjoy here. Heavy Light is more subdued, more restrained, and certainly more beautiful than its big sister. God knows where Remy will go from here, but you can rest assured that it won’t be boring.