Scene: Mid-afternoon. A customer wanders into an aging record shop. A brass shopkeeper’s bell attached to the door frame announces every entry from the street of an unspecified urban center. The air is thick with the stale musk of aging cardboard sleeves kept stagnant by the narrow aisle space and crammed shelving. The neighborhood is probably gentrifying, but the shop is either a holdout or a holdover. Hard to say. A customer approaches the indifferent-acting middle-aged clerk. He is an embodied paean to his high school self, an erstwhile garage band member. With a detached gaze, he turns to the customer as they speak.
“I’m looking for music laced with infectious beats, wrestling with the paradoxes of intimacy and technology in the pandemic-haunted 21st century while giving serious Solid Gold 1970s vibes. Perhaps rife with a messy, embodied feminism ruminating on life’s transitory limits. It should deal with the hard questions of meaning and, maybe, their futility. Throw in some mythology, wordplay, and formal wear as a metaphor for the ache of intimacy. But, I need to dance to it and feel the sweaty life beat of a glittery mirrorball disco club where the DJ mixes pulsating drum machines in concert with the mechanical sounds of a breast pump.”
If our clerk isn’t entirely flummoxed or hasn’t tossed the inquirer out at the mention of disco, perhaps he is savvy enough to pull a copy of the U.S. Girls‘ Bless This Mess from behind the counter and drop it on the house turntable, allowing one of the most creative albums of the year to speak for itself where words might fail.
Musical artist Meg Remy—under the banner of U.S. Girls— has traversed a vast landscape of musical genres and themes for the past 15 years, from channeling her vocals through delay pedal effects to fronting an art-soul orchestra. Creative stasis has never been an issue for U.S. Girls. 2023’s Bless This Mess is no exception, folding existential ruminations on meaning, sensual embodiment, and mystery within an exceptional dance track.
Remy gave birth to this project concurrent with the conception and birth of her twin sons. The resulting album is suffused with the bodily—blood, sweat, sex, nursing, and exhaustion pulse throughout—and marks the interplay and interference of the machine on physical connection. In advance press for the album’s release, Remy points to funk as a generative anchor for this work with its earthy sensuousness, cleaving to and guiding the body’s rhythms.
Reminiscent of Funkadelic’s classic Maggot Brain, which opens with a myth of creation and a “knocked-up” earth, Bless This Mess begins with the mythology of the Greek inventor (“Only Daedulus”) as a means to engage the human tragedy entailed in the clash between our technological innovativeness and our failure to recognize their limits. “You can chain whatever you want to the wall / Yet Icarus will fall / That boy will always fall.” The interplay of hubris and bodily limitations plays out within a hypnotic R&B groove. The opener is a harbinger of the creativity that follows.
Like all compelling art, Bless This Mess has an expansive scope that ponders meaning while being grounded in the sensual with all its mystery and mess. The use of funk and its lineal descendants in disco and varieties of EDM are the perfect musical palette for these musings. These genre trajectories enact a bodily, throbbing beat that evokes pulsing veins and rushing blood, sweat, labor, the awkward entwinement of bodies on the floor and in the sheets, and the expansion and contraction of breath and birth. It is the literal rhythm of life.
Take “Futures Bet”, for instance. It begins with an anthemic electric guitar intro before dropping into a synthetic drum beat enveloping Remy’s airy vocal reflections on the pulsations of life. “The only thing that’s true is breathing in, breathing out / Breathing in, breathing out.” This aspirational wisdom is grounding and puts our impulses to reach for the sky in check. After all, “why do we want to know why?” It’s hard to breathe at certain heights.
There’s a playfulness to Bless This Mess that’s always in concert with this fleeting existence. “RIP Roy G. Biv” personifies the acronym for the hues of the rainbow in a dreamy dirge embracing life’s limits. The “end of the rainbow” is both the treasure of fulfillment and the fleeting beauty of life. In this shadow, Remy invites her listeners to shine while they can. “Go ahead, pretend everywhere is your stage / You know we share a common fate / Here comes the fade.”
Nowhere is this whimsy more arresting than in “Tux (Your Body Fills Me, Boo)”. A triumph of disco production reminiscent of the sultry undertones of Donna Summer‘s “Love to Love You Baby”, the song is an arresting expression of pent-up longing and desire sung from the metaphorical perspective of an abandoned tuxedo. Remy expresses every ounce of the metaphor, oozing the sensuality of sexual desire without taking itself too seriously. She is straining against the distance that has emerged (“Oh, I’m lonely / Suffocating in this plastic bag”) and longs to engulf her lover. Here is an agency that isn’t content in the back of the closet.
One of the distinctive features of this remarkable record is the attention to the paradoxical condition of human entanglement with technology. Remy captures how our creative manipulations of nature both advance us while continually highlighting the futility of our quest to solve the enigma of pure connectivity. Here, Daedalus was a cautionary tale. In “So Typically Now”—a 1980s-influenced synthpop number whose opening beats evoke a Miami Vice car chase—Remy uses the context of pandemic real estate vulture capitalism as a backdrop to the frustrations and vulnerabilities of sending images in lieu of physical connection. “Screen Face” expands this paradox of the simulation of connection and intimacy.
But this is no facile commentary on our “cyborg” selves. Remy explores the inescapable nature of technological entanglement without romanticizing it. “Pump” might be the apex of this album’s creative engagement. Tied up with the miracle of life and its connective wonder is the technology that both facilitates and alienates. Cesarean intervention and breast pump usage are both addressed without reflexive condemnation nor with rose-colored glasses. The brilliance of sampling loops of the drone of the breast pump with synthetic drum beats illustrates how assistive technology is always implicated in our connective tissue, whether it is the Moog or midi or the breast pump.
The spiritual heart of this project lies within the track that shares the album’s title. It is a solemn hymn to the material state of things with all its imperfections. We’re broken jars carrying water day after day, but this is no Sisyphean tragedy. “Bless This Mess” is a ballad to gratitude and the freedom to recognize life’s limits. “You don’t need no map when every road ends.” Everything belongs, and we are all in this together.
Music frequently deals with the issues engaged within Bless This Mess. Its uniqueness doesn’t lie in this alone. Instead, Meg Remy’s attuned ear identifies funk and R&B grooves as conduits for the very pulse of life. She expands this beyond the simply erotic to flesh out the temporal awkwardness of bodies in motion and flux; we are careening toward a conclusion, but there is joy and beauty along the way. The outro of “Pump” raises the subtext of Bless This Mess to the fore, “So, what are we talking about? / We’re talking about bodies, birth, death, machines….” Herein lies the bond we didn’t choose, she explains, but into which we must live. The slowing beat fades out and then flatlines.
The Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron observes that in every moment, something is dying, and something is being born. This fundamental cycle of flux intertwines with technology, an extension of our creative impulse and a tangible reminder of the futility of mastering mystery. In this lens, David Bowie’s imperative (“Let’s Dance!”) is less escapist fantasy and more a call to embrace life’s fundamental rhythms.
From time immemorial, humans have sought to express our fleeting experiences of the primal flow of life through music. U.S. Girls’ Bless This Mess is a brilliantly conceived and executed contribution to this legacy. Meg Remy and her collaborators have channeled her recognition of the communicative depth of dance music with creative, nearly flawless production. The result invites us to consider and embrace this blessed mess that is our bond and is an early frontrunner for consideration among the year’s best albums.