Music Reviews
Half Free

U.S. Girls Half Free

(4AD) Rating - 8/10

Despite offering a conceptual framework that could fill volumes of books on women’s studies, Half Free isn’t either didactic or persuasive. It focuses exclusively on women in distinct backdrops, some mundane and some profound, but never does it become too deep to digest, thanks to the inflexibility of its presentation. Meghan Remy has been at the helm of U.S. Girls for the past decade, offsetting a chiaroscuro synth-pop aesthetic with just a faint glimmer of pop confection. The impenetrable nature of her records has always been what first sticks, or at least what’s most apparent, though it has always been something of a challenge to get a sense of her personality.

It also isn’t the first time Remy is delving into more “feminist” themes. With songs like State House (It’s a Man’s World) and Don’t Understand that Man, Remy has dabbled in the past with the workings of the male psyche. Half Free has a closer understanding of womanhood as a normative matter, reflecting on life as it actually is. But never does it come from a place of defiance or animosity. Above all else, Remy is simply telling stories - she grieves and struggles, laden with weighty distress in Damn that Valley, told from the perspective of a solder’s wife who’s lost her love in battle. The man in Remy’s life is rather AWOL than killed in action in Window Shades, in which she’s trying to come to terms with an extinguishing love due to his philandering ways, though pride still overtakes her (“What if I left it all up to you/I’m no fool”). The men throughout Half Free are all pursued but always absent, cast in a permanent shadow with nary any hint of judgment.

But the most noticeable transformation in Half Free comes from Remy’s receptivity to explore many different musical styles. No song sounds alike, and they’re all handled with a brisk sense of sparkle and commitment. The dub-inspired Damn that Valley hits every bass note with pointed precision, taking a page from Jamaican legend Augustus Pablo, though it wouldn’t sound as idiosyncratic if it weren’t for her screeching, high-pitched voice. Sed Knife, which is originally culled from around the time when she released 2012's GEM, embraces the same glam pop histrionics that her husband Max Turnbull, also known as Slim Twig, performs with sheer gusto. The haunting closer Woman’s Work wraps itself in its own looping, dreamlike way, applying an attenuated layer of burbling synths with a tone that increasingly becomes more sinister. All this shapeshifting could denote a severe lack of direction and instruction, though the changes in mood are handled with such ingenious sagacity that it never comes across as a hasty chore.

The highlight in Half Free, Navy & Cream, is maybe its most inscrutable, though predictable so, which finds Remy perfecting the lo-fi grit of her more ambient beginnings with a pop hook that sounds as if she were deconstructing a George Michael ballad into a ugly, hallucinatory nightmare. So it’s a delight to hear that Remy is still pushing more unconventional songwriting methods that cling outwardly to any semblance of a pop sound. Half Free is both a revelation and a breakthrough, one that finds Remy elevating her songwriting panache while carrying a certain mysticism that seems grounded in both plausibility and commonality. One could’ve done with another solid experimental outing from Remy, but her unembellished statement provides so much more: to contend without being contentious. It presents us with a different side of Remy we knew was always there, but never thought we’d actually get to unearth.