U.S. Girls’ Meghan Remy has come a long way since the release of her debut effort on Siltbreeze Records more than ten years ago. It is only natural for an artist to evolve and grow from album to album. However, the artistry of this new album is in stark contrast to that of her 2007 debut Introducing…, a fairly inaccessible lo-fi noise album, with barely a melody in sight. The evolution can certainly be traced through her discography – on efforts such as Gem (2012) and the Free Advice Column EP (2013), her music began to incorporate elements of noise pop, as well as 60s girl group-era pop, putting it through a lo-fi filter and leading it to sound like a faded and corrupted facsimile of that era. It all culminated on her 4AD debut Half Free (2015), a much more refined effort, but still with a sense of the surreal and some elements of the noise that was prevalent in her previous works. Lyrically, much of her material has dealt with issues faced by women in everyday society, sometimes going in with subversive takes through a lens of outdated values from the 50s and 60s, as well as relationships and the shifting power dynamics often present within them.
On In A Poem Unlimited, Remy teams up with Toronto-based band 8-piece band The Cosmic Range, to make her most lucid and tangible record to date. The framing of the cover art, as well as the phrasing of the title suggests a kind of theatrical play, and indeed, a number of the songs bring to mind images of choreographed performance, like the edgy, burlesque overtones of “Rage of Plastics” or the ominous robotic choir in “Incidental Boogie”, bringing to mind an army of cloned women carrying out household chores. Musically, the band run the gamut of sounds and influences, from seductive soul (“Velvet 4 Sale”), to full-on space disco (“M.A.H.”), to lightly symphonic trip-hop (“Rosebud”) and hip-hop (“Pearly Gates”). With the range of different styles on the record, what keeps it all together, of course, is Remy herself – her distinctive vocal delivery, sometimes going into spoken word, but often in her impassioned falsetto, which has something of a fighting, defiant quality to that is fitting for the lyrical themes that she approaches throughout the record. The theme of power comes up in the album’s opener “Velvet 4 Sale”, which opens with some very breathy and sensuous vocals over a slow, pacing beat, before settling into a humid, wah-wah driven groove. Remy speaks nonchalantly, almost like a salesperson, encouraging the person she is addressing to seek out a certain form of self-defence, or rather, revenge, in the form of a gun. There is a subtly dangerous feeling to the verses – a sense of paranoia, like walking the streets alone at night, which supports the lyrics of this woman being pursued by a dangerous former lover and how quickly that power dynamic can be turned on its head with such a weapon. A horn section lights up the chorus, further underscoring the sense of empowerment afforded by this armament, as Remy fervently describes the sense of intimidation that it brings.
The theme of power and submission is also prominent in “Incidental Boogie”, a re-recording of an earlier song from Free Advice Column, and just about the darkest this album gets. The instrumentation borders on industrial, driven by noisy guitars and an odd, dissonant loop throughout. The character in this song appears to deliberately seek out submissive relationships with abusive men, because “life is easy when there is only pain to compete”. It would seem that while the character tries to escape the void of boredom and the mundane everyday life through these means, she ultimately finds that it does not get her anywhere, resigning to being “no closer to free”, with distorted vocals at the end signifying her agonised frustration. “L-Over”, which follows, is different again, creeping in slowly, its plodding, sluggish beat reflecting the joyless relationship with an emotionless lover told through its words.
On the other hand, lead single “Mad as Hell” (here in disguise under its acronym), is the most upbeat cut on here – an all-out disco tune, sounding like a dead ringer for Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”. Here, Remy takes a critical look at Barack Obama’s presidency, from the initial high and the promises, later referencing the ongoing and unresolved wars, his use of drones and of course, the charisma with which he handled it all. The song is even framed somewhat like the cycle of a romantic relationship, a love/hate relationship many Americans no doubt shared during the eight-year term. “Rosebud” is a fairly low-key trip-hop tune with some dramatic strings, an upbeat tune with a bittersweet edge. Lyrically, it is a difficult song to read, the title being a possible reference to the famous line from Citizen Kane, with mentions of secrets and generally ominous, surreal phrases. And then, “Pearly Gates” is co-written with hip-hop producer and frequent collaborator Onakabazien, with a nervy instrumentation that would not be out of place on a classic 90s boom-bap record. Religious themes and characters are paired with strong sexual imagery and innuendo, as the protagonist here is violated by a religious figure, represented by Saint Peter himself, from whom she’d thought she would find redemption. His later denial of the sexual act, and bragging about being “good at pulling out” highlights the hypocrisy of religious leaders and possibly even being a commentary on the sexual abuse scandal of the Catholic Church. James Baley’s chorus is a caution that appears to fall on deaf ears. “Poem” may be the most low-key song here, driven by warm arpeggiated synth pads, giving it an oddly optimistic feel. Lyrics are again quite abstract and specific, but could be making references to a cult.
The album’s tracklist is also completed by the presence of two cover versions. “Rage of Plastics” takes on a song by Toronto-based songwriter Simone Schmidt and one of her numerous aliases, Fiver. While the original was a slow and doomy dirge, the tempo is upped here, with a sort of dark lounge jazz instrumentation. More of a story-based song, it tells of a young woman who makes certain concessions with her life plans for a job at a refinery, becoming involved in a bizarre pretend-parental relationship with her employer. Finally, “Time”, which closes out the album, is a take on Maine-based Micah Blue Smaldone’s song from his 2013 album The Ring of the Rise. Foregoing the swampy blues rock jam of the original, it takes its ominous energy and turns it into something altogether much more frantic and urgent. With a metronomic Motorik-like beat of both live and programmed percussion, supplemented by the freewheeling congas, the lyrics like mantras repeated in vain, powerless to the passage of time. The last nearly five minutes turn into an all-out jam, almost like the finale of the play as all the characters take a bow, or the end of a live show. The drums pull back as the saxophone blossoms, followed by a crazy, manipulated guitar that is gradually tamed. Eventually, all that is left is the fuzzy bass to keep it anchored, and though it fizzles out somewhat, it still feels satisfying after such an epic and frantic closer.
With In A Poem Unlimited, Meghan Remy continues her impressive artistic growth, with her hard work, thought-provoking songwriting and her myriad of collaborators coming together for an eclectic and smart record that may be her most refined to date. The polished production is justified by her ever-improving songwriting, which is as sharp as it has ever been. All in all, a fantastic record which will grow on you with repeat listens.