REVIEW: U.S. Girls – Heavy Light

There are no two ways about it – Heavy Light is a very good record. It’s possibly the best I’ve heard this year. A Frankenstein’s monster of an album, it references a wide array of artists and genres during the course of its running time. Shades of 60s girl groups, disco, easy listening, bossa nova, Springsteen and even late period PJ Harvey can be heard. But it never feels like pastiche or artistic larceny. It’s testament to the band’s talent that these influences are moulded into something coherent, thrilling and clearly theirs.

On many of the up-tempo tracks, the heavy lyrical content is masked by the upbeat, propulsive grooves. At its heart this is pop music, and songs like ‘4 American Dollars’ and ‘And Yet It Moves/Y Se Mueve’ are floor-fillers, registering on a physical level before they register intellectually. Other elements are woven skilfully in. The shades of Scott Walker in the spaghetti Western feel of ‘Born to Lose’ and the sped-up bossa nova of ‘And Yet It Moves’ bolster rather than distract.

Slower songs like ‘Denise Don’t Wait’ and ‘IOU’ are cut from a different cloth, the music more in keeping with the words. The arrangements are sparser and individual instruments are given the space to breathe. On both songs, the reverberating drums underscore the emotional heft of the words. In fact, the drums throughout sound immense. Percussion is rarely the standout instrument on an album for me. Yet there is something captivating about their place in the mix, prominent but not dominant, and the simple but expressive drum patterns themselves. At times (like on ‘Red Ford Radio’) they sound militaristic in their marching. Elsewhere they slink along, punctuated by dramatic flourishes of kettle and triangle.

That is not to overlook the other instruments captured on the record. It all sounds fantastic – particularly the chorus of supporting female voices that drops in and out of the songs. The production is on a par with the instrumentation and the lyrics. It sounds vintage but not hammy, big and warm in just the right way.

Lyrically, it’s an album that has something to say but retains a sense of poetry, avoiding the opposite traps of pretentious inscrutability and on-the-nose obviousness. There are big themes here – ‘4 American Dollars’ critiques society’s attitude towards money, ‘Overtime’ paints a powerful picture of grief and regret, whilst ‘State House’ explores female agency – but they are painted delicately. Meaning is present but doesn’t offer itself up straight away. Even the more obvious metaphors, like the repeated refrain of ‘we bend’ at the end of ‘State House’, are deployed carefully, their immediacy contrasting with the surrounding lines for added impact.

Trauma, both personal and social, runs throughout. In addition to the songs already mentioned, ‘Quiver to the bomb’ laments what humanity has done to the planet it occupies. Voices seem damaged and fragile; the protagonist of ‘Denise Don’t Wait’ fears she will ‘melt like snow’. Even in ‘4 American Dollars’ the singer’s soulful rejection of the Capitalist system is undermined, the repeated chorus of “You can do a lot with 4 American Dollars” exposed as more brittle with ever appearance.

The three spoken interludes, adult reflections on teenage life, add to the sense of reflection, and the regret that often attends it. Interludes can be lazy filler or unsuccessful experiments, but these just about work. They act like a thematic, if not narrative, framing device for the record.

Engage with this record however you want – zoom in on the lyrics and try to unpick their meaning, dance to the bangers, wallow in the emotion of the slower songs. There is so much here to enjoy and savour. It’s a record that warrants repeat listens, revealing something new and unexpected on each return trip.

Words by Will Collins

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