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U.S. Girls’ In a Poem Unlimited Is Subversive Pop Handled With Care

Meg Remy, the Toronto-based expat behind U.S. Girls, has had a prolific decade, one that’s taken her from lo-fi noise records—early influences included Suicide and psychedelic group the Silver Apples—to a warped, seedy version of pop music. What hasn’t changed, however, is her gallows-humor take on women’s life, one that’s become more pertinent (to say the least) in 2018. In a Poem Unlimited, her first album on 4AD, was recorded with Toronto jazz/funk musicians the Cosmic Range, and is largely a work of pop pastiche. ”I wanted to work with the pop form sonically so that I could hide the weird shit and the dark messages within it, almost hoping that they would go unnoticed,” Remy said, in a profile that dubbed her “the entire history of female pop music in one woman.”

Of course, in 2018 every pop artist is tasked with being so multifaceted that they’re able to slip between genres and playlists; it also seems, at times, that there’s as much “subversive” pop music as there is music that is supposedly being subverted, not all of it as deep as advertised. Poem, thankfully, is far more thoughtful about it than most. The lite sophisti-pop of “Rosebud” goes down the easiest; fittingly, it’s paired with a lyric about the unexamined emotional life. Shamelessly Beatlesesque love musings introduce “L-Over,” but then Remy does away with them for a more bitter stomp. “M.A.H.” frames itself as a catfishing lament but reveals itself to be about the Obama administration (“you took me for an eight-year ride, though you were never by my side”) and its media-friendly embrace of war and drone bombing. It also helps that there are just so many modes. “Incidental Boogie” begins with a sotto voce, Mary Weiss-toned intro—a hold-over from Free Advice Column, the 2012 girl-group-esque EP on which it first appeared. On “M.A.H.” she’s Debbie Harry on “Heart of Glass;” on “Poem” she’s Kylie.

Most frequently she evokes Tori Amos circa the late ‘90s: the “Liquid Diamonds” groove of album opener “Velvet 4 Sale,” the Southern-rock underpinning of “L-Over” or, more fundamentally, her project of excavating every unspoken-of crevice of female life until she’s unearthed all the predators, prey, avengers and healers. “Rage of Plastics,” a cover of cult Canadian folkie Simone Schmidt, casts her as a Radium Girl for the Forever 21 era, plagued by toxins from the oil refinery at which she works—and a husband who views her resultant infertility as a personal affront. Where Schmidt’s version is hushed, almost contemplative, Remy and her band—including, right up front, a deliberately garish sax soloist—paint it in the neon tones of the disco dresses that command such demand. “Incidental Boogie” is the same unflinching lyric about domestic violence (the titular “incident”) and its doubled-down rationalizations (“Life made no sense without a beating, you see? / And life was just too quiet without no one screaming at me”) but the Poem version makes it louder and madder, seething with distortion and thrashed every few bars by percussion—the sound of rage tamped down so until it spills out at everyone and everything.

What in other pop songs might be sexy, deliberately isn’t here. “Pearly Gates” is set in heaven, but the dry heat of the arrangement locates it in a different biome entirely, a hellscape populated by dudes who seduce with lines like “don’t worry, I’m really good at pulling out.” Their will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, and that line is given to St. Peter, who turns out to be a rapist and dealer in celestial quid pro quo. Like much of Poem, the music is so West Coast breezy it has led listeners to praise the “ribald romp” and “saucy double entendres” of even the darkest of messages, such as: “I asked for nothing but to stop it short—I guess he didn’t hear a word I said.” There’s revenge to be had, elsewhere, though; Remy says she recorded “Velvet 4 Sale” in a “contorted position,” like a grotesque parody of a femme fatale; but the track knows its task is retribution, and murder, all to “instill in him the fear of being prey.”

Woven through Poem are skits, like the raspy, cracking “Why Do I Always Lose My Voice When I Have Something to Say,” and “Traviata,” which makes the femme-fatale subtext of “Velvet 4 Sale” text: “Are you a spy? “No, I’m a singer.” (Not an unheard-of scenario, turns out.) He presses: “What are you singing? Traviata?” “Traviata,” in Italian, roughly translates to “She who has strayed”; just what that straying consists of has evolved, in stagings, over the centuries, from a tragedy of marriage to a tragedy of capitalism: “Today La Traviata is no longer the story of an unhappy love between a prostitute and a slightly crazy young man,” wrote French critic Catherine Clément, “it is the cruel conflict between the family, its property interests, and the parallel world of prostitution.” Whatever the arena, though, the heroine perishes. Similarly, whether by the personal or the political, by factory or by fuckboy, very few of Remy’s heroines end up that well. Where Poem succeeds, though, is by granting them a stage: a dance floor so crowded one might never notice the plotting.