It’s unfair on artists that get categorised according to their label yet everything associated with life on this hurtling space rock is inherently unfair. Some labels are forever associated with genres whether you suppress your unconscious bias, embrace it or are just blissfully unaware of the logo printed on the bottom of the record sleeve. There was a period in the nineties where it was slightly jarring that both PJ Harvey and U2 were on Island, a label traditionally associated with reggae, although it did give white people’s record collections a slightly more interesting mix of spine designs.
The U.S. Girls, the ever-evolving project directed and helmed by Meg Remy, occupy a musical space informed by a palette of influences so diverse, it’s almost impossible to squeeze them into one particular genre. However, their mix of smart, expansive alt-pop feels slightly misplaced on 4AD, a label forever associated with guitar-toting college rock to a certain type of music aficionado. Namely, those obsessed with the type of plugged-in bedroom song-writer college rock in which 4AD used to have the market cornered.
Bless This Mess is Remy’s 8th studio album release in a sparkling 15-year period, but it is, pertinently, both the first since that global pandemic thing and was also conceived in tandem with the birth of her twin sons. This gives the record a sense of growth and development, which hasn’t been absent from their previous albums, but is now undeniably audible in both worldview and in the timbre of Remy’s vocals.
Opener, ‘Only Daedalus’ references the mythical father of Icarus. Pleasingly, as well as referring to his offspring-killing amateur aeronautics, it also uses his building of the Minotaur’s labyrinth as allegory. All of this takes place over a sauntering tempo jauntily punctuated by stabbing electric pianos reminiscent of an age when the analogue and the digital were still learning to live with
‘Just Space For Light’ might be my favourite track on the album. It’s like a mini-showcase for the clashing musical styles being fused across the rest of the record. What starts as a potentially breezy and wistful song smashes into a groovy, soulful psychedelia over a pacy, bubbling bassline. The vocals are pitched in a variance of registers and the melodic elements like the keys and synths feel like they’re almost being thrown in to show off the breadth of creative inputs being harnessed. This sense of almost overbearing creativity is exacerbated when the middle eight’s key change manages to sound entirely natural and
Thematically, ‘Screen Face’ explores the role of the smartphone in modern relationships, neither asserting it as an enabling tool nor a physical and emotional barrier between people. The mix of warm keys, subtle flute codas and a varying snare sound that moves from a gentle rattle to an abrasive slap suitably couches the themes of human interactions without the tactile, pungent bits.
The running order then serves up the album’s four single releases in series, heralded by ‘Futures Bet’ and its intro which is a clever, seamless riff on Hendrix’s version of the US national anthem. Personally, I think the influence of Prince is the most prominent in everything U.S. Girls do but it really comes to the fore here. Funky, shuffling low-end elements play host to an outrageously Prince-like guitar solo.
‘So Typically Now’ is the single you’re mostly likely to have already heard with its radio-friendly soaring backing vocals and a dance-friendly beat picked out by satisfyingly extensive tom-tom fills.
Title track, ‘Bless This Mess’ is a lyrical highlight. Tying together the previously mentioned themes of Greek myths (‘it’s your job to carry water / in a broken jar all day’) with a kitsch title phrase associated with inherent modern domesticity delivered with such a twisted sincerity that its takes centre stage.
Latest single, ‘Tux (Your Body Fills Me, Boo)’ is a sweeping disco banger sung from the perspective of a discarded tuxedo. Conceptually, this has every right to sound like a poorly dispensed dog’s supper but it’s a touching, exuberant ride over a funk-fused groove with exactly the right amount of slapped and picked bass notes.
‘R.I.P Roy G. Biv‘ is a dreamlike soundscape with grimly fanciful references to the mortality of rainbows and a mixture of clean and auto-tuned vocals duelling over a deceptively dense blend of sounds. The main organ track is reminiscent of one of the Beatles’ more fanciful songs and the drum/bongo track is suitably subtle.
‘St. James Way’ has a slightly more prominent acoustic guitar than you’ll hear elsewhere on the album giving the song a relatively folk-y vibe.
Many of the album’s takes were recorded with Remy’s twins being carried either in utero or in her arms, and sort-of-closer ‘Pump’ uses a sample of a breast pump as its central rhythmic drive while the lyrics are about feeding babies. It’s a sort-of-closer because the album does contain a slightly disorientating ‘Outro (The Let Down)’ which includes a much more tonal version of the pump sample.
Remy has always been atop shifting trends with re-invention an aspect she has always absorbed rather than forced. Even so, Bless This Mess forms a pivotal moment and achieves something ever rarer in modern pop music. Artistry. The ability to reflect the turbulent and poignant movements of your own soul and reflect that outwards in crafting something that can trigger empathetic emotional responses by fusing a disarmingly clever turn of phrase with the perfect rhythmic backing.
Bless This Mess is out now via 4AD