Why U.S. Girls’ “Half Free” Should Win the Polaris Prize

half-freeby Michael Thomas

On the third night of the 2014 Wavelength Festival, U.S. Girls was on the lineup. But Meghan Remy chose not to perform anything from her own catalogue; instead she decided to do a “love-themed” set of covers. Remy is always attacking music from different angles, and each of her works (and probably even every performance) changes things up just a little.

It’s no secret that this year’s Polaris Prize shortlist and longlist has paid a bit more attention to excellent pop music. Justin Bieber was Polaris-nominated for the first time, while Carly Rae Jepsen and Grimes made it to the short list. Thing is, I can’t wholly bring myself around to being a poptimist just yet. Though it’s not a prerequisite for being nominated for the Polaris Prize, my ideal winner each year is an album that challenges and innovates. While Kaytranada’s 99.9% is definitely challenging,  I think Half Free gets the edge with its varied sound and dressing down of the reigning pop of the day, while still working from a pop angle.

The Polaris Prize has also gotten better and better at showcasing talented women, and it’s hard to deny that this album is the most explicitly feminist of the bunch, right from the title. The subject matter of Half Free is women who are exactly half free; they’re being controlled by awful men, but you get the sense that this won’t be the case for much longer. In the opening “Sororal Feelings,” the woman is stuck in a relationship with a man who’s already slept with her sisters. In “New Age Thriller,” the woman is fiercely holding onto her independence, no matter what her man forces her to do.

There’s an ominous cloud hanging over the album, one that seems to be thumbing its nose at the sunshine of the best-selling pop of the day. Pop can be more, and it’s a lot more when it’s infused with Remy’s intensity as a performer. “Red Comes In Many Shades” is exemplary of this, with an eerie synth-and-guitar backdrop backing Remy’s lamentations. In “Damn That Valley,” grief is overwhelmed by a dark electronic groove.

If the darkness isn’t enough, Remy’s twisting of pop conventions makes Half Free even more impressive. In another artist’s hands, “Navy & Cream” could be a slow-burning, dreamy bit of synth-pop. Instead, everything is just a little bit off, as though it’s being filtered through an old speaker. The huge guitar solo later on is just another tasty surprise. Oh and speaking of guitar, “Sed Knife” is chock-full of the fuzzy variety, another unexpected burst.

By the time “Woman’s Work” caps the album off, Remy has dipped into garage-rock, dark electronica, doom-folk and a “telephone play” that ends abruptly with canned sitcom laughter. Her final song ascends to a brighter plane with a pronounced disco groove, promising the many shackled women of her album that help is on the way, whether they want to make that choice and leave or not.

Remy’s mind seems to always be churning with new ideas, and Half Free is an example of the kind of work the Polaris Prize should be rewarding: it’s thoughtful, dynamic, unpredictable, and unwilling to settle for anything less than experimental.

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