Review | US Girls — Heavy Light
US Girls' latest offering may just be the most ambitious and frustrating album of 2020.
Most songs I review – hell, most modern songs in general – progress towards a moment of clarity. A story or a message gets developed, the emotion builds, and, finally, the song condenses into a moment where everything is painfully clear.
US Girls’ new album, “Heavy Light,” resists that progression. The threads introduced on most songs never come together; instead, “Heavy Light”’s ideas spread out like ripples from a hidden center. Songwriter Meg Remy’s lyrics approach concepts from all sides, giving listeners a thousand ways to think about an idea rather than a single clear perspective. The music rarely builds to a climax or change-up; instead, the songs repeat the same musical passages with small variations. Listening to “Heavy Light” is less like going on a journey or listening to a story than studying a coded message: all the information is there, if you can put it together in the right way.
“Four American Dollars” explores the culture that surrounds money in America. Remy slyly points out how Western culture separates financial and personal matters (ie, the expressions “it’s just money” and “it’s not personal, it’s business”) while encouraging people to express their love through buying expensive objects. She critiques Americans' glorification of starting from nothing, pointing out that you usually need some money to make more (“you’ve got to have boots if you want to lift those bootstraps”). The end of the song dissolves into a silly litany of other currencies (pennies, pounds, rupees) that Remy doesn’t care about as much as good old American dollars. “Four American Dollars” is not exactly a message song, because, well, there’s no single clear message. As a critic who likes to analyze music, it was hard for me to admit – and appreciate – that there is no one animating feeling or underlying message to the track. The song’s simply a record of all the strange ways Americans interact with, lionize and demonize money. It’s the ripples that American culture makes on the water.
The other songs on “Heavy Light” are just as slippery. Most feature rambling, off-kilter beats that eventually fade out or just stop. The lyrics aren’t obviously confessional, but Remy’s tender, expressive voice certainly makes the vocals *sound* personal. Most of the songs don’t tell stories, but the same themes appear again and again: reflections, doppelgangers, lies. Listening to “Heavy Light” made me feel like I was constantly on the verge of understanding something both universally true and deeply personal. On the best songs (“Four American Dollars”, “IOU”, “Y Se Mueve”, “Denise Don’t Wait”), the ambiguity, the circular nature of the songs felt like a feature, not a bug. The sneaky dancing around the point was the point. The whole album’s a beautiful, slippery reflection on the things people can’t express head-on.
“Y Se Mueve” takes its title from a quote attributed to Galileo. Allegedly, just after the pope forced Galileo to publicly recant his discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun, he whispered: “y sin embargo se mueve” (but it does move). Thematically, the song explores how authorities (much like the church in Galileo’s time) tell comforting lies to prevent people from understanding how chaotic and unstable the world really is.
It’s difficult to tell whether the track’s message is optimistic or pessimistic. On one hand, “y se mueve” refers to the immutability of truth: whether we believe it or not, the Earth continues to revolve. No matter how much dictators distort the truth, reality is still reality, and anyone truly observant can figure out what’s true and what’s false. On the other hand, the truth is way harder to talk about and understand than propaganda. There’s “no key” that unlocks the meaning of life, and even scientific discoveries rely on contradictions. The lyrics US Girls use to describe truth are cryptic and contradictory: it’s “stuck between a flower and a bottle.” It’s “two shapes at once: a circle and a square.” “Y Se Mueve’s” a song for people who know the propaganda’s false, but don't have (or haven’t been given) the words to express what’s true.
Musically, “Y Se Mueve” feels caught between awe at how the world continues on and fear of the future. The beat borrows equally from Latin dance music (the infectious marimbas and sing-song chorus make the song danceable); and minimalist electronic music (the skittering violins and low, menacing, warping synths sound like something off a Death Grips track). Like the Earth, the song moves, and that movement’s both exciting and sickening. In the middle of the song, the groove dissolves into insistent beeps, before settling back into a danceable rhythm. The song fades out instead of resolving, leaving us feeling unsettled and unsure of what we just listened to.
At other times, “Heavy Light” is a bit like the type of modern art people like to complain about: Remy’s clearly making a statement, but the art’s too sparse, or cold, or obtuse to have an emotional reaction to. I still haven’t cracked songs like “Redford Radio,” an extreme lo-fi tune with lo-fi production that makes it sound like Remy’s singing from the bottom of a well. The repeated, specific images and the song’s numbed tone remind me of a buried trauma. But the song – which clocks in under three minutes – is not substantive or accessible enough to communicate much of anything about that trauma. It hints but never develops. You could argue, I guess, that a song about a buried trauma can never be accessible. But like most listeners, I need something to hold on to, and Remy’s buried the lead too deep.
There are a few other underdeveloped songs on “Heavy Light” that, despite my best efforts, I was never able to emotionally access. “Woodstock 99” is an old-fashioned sentimental piano ballad that sounds influenced by Whitney Houston. The song describes a relationship with great tenderness, but never makes it clear what, exactly, this person means to Remy (is she a friend? lover? relative?). The lyrics are a collection of intriguing details that never forms a bigger picture. While the instrumental captures the sweetness and melancholy of a classic love song, there’s no structure to focus that distinctive sound. The song wanders in and out of cul-de-sacs, never building to a memorable climax. After many listens, I can confidently state that “Woodstock ’99” is about a person who was very important, a relationship that was complicated and emotional, and some things that were left unsaid. Something sharp and heavy that left these ripples on the water; what it was, I’m not sure.
“Heavy Light” circles around things that can’t be approached directly. It tries to express something hidden and unsaid by talking about all the things around it. Sometimes Remy provides just enough context to shed a beautiful, hypnotizing light on a subject; other times, the center of the song’s buried too deep to excavate. Even when it comes up short, it's one of the most ambitious albums of the year.