Girlpool have already outgrown the minimalism that both elevated and plagued their first album. Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker stripped their debut “Before The World Was Big” down to its most barebones components in an attempt to expose their imperfections. The effort was sometimes clumsy, sometimes earnest and always teenage in its self-sabotaging expression of vulnerability.
They matured in almost every way on their sophomore record “Powerplant.” Beyond adding a drummer, the duo infused their indie folk pop with garage rock and punk while maintaining the raw closeness that launched their career. Girlpool learned to deliver somber emotions of insecurity in more complex ways as Tividad and Tucker honed their harmony.
Despite the marked improvement, “Powerplant” would not have been able to hold its listeners engaged for longer than its 28-minute run time. Bookended by the album’s best-crafted songs, the core of the record was a run of traditionally alternative mid-tempo tracks and mellowed out slow-burners, boasting little to no standout moments.
Now, with “What Chaos Is Imaginary,” Girlpool evolve in an equally substantial and far more engaging way. The album kicks off with one of Girlpool’s most striking metamorphoses: Cleo Tucker’s new tenor vocals. Tucker, who came out in 2017 as transgender, has since been taking testosterone, deepening his voice by an octave and triggering a dramatic evolution both personal and musical in nature. It’s immediately clear on album opener “Lucy’s” that Tucker’s new voice adds a captivating dimension to Girlpool’s already expanding sound, and it serves as yet another vehicle for the duo to emote their vulnerability as a conflicted Cleo sings about “an unfamiliar stage where you’d rather stay.”
With Cleo’s vocal transition, Girlpool make a solid case for being considered on par with some of the great male-female harmonies in indie rock, including the xx and Low. This is best demonstrated on the haunting “Chemical Freeze,” which along with such harmonies features a wandering electric guitar riff and a beautifully atmospheric fadeout, one of Girlpool’s most mature effects to date.
Meanwhile, Tividad delivers drastically improved vocals throughout the record. Compare her performance on the timid “Hoax and the Shrine” with any of the similarly raw cuts from “Before The World Was Big.” Tividad sings a step above a whisper as she questions, “Can a god spill milk?," and she’s accompanied by nothing but a minor finger-picked guitar. Tividad has developed a restraint that gives her songs of pain and insecurity a powerfully dark weight, one that makes her message far more unsettling and impactful.
Girlpool continue to transform their instrumental sound as well, moving the garage rock of “Powerplant” closer to shoegaze at some points and drifting towards dream pop at others. “Minute In Your Mind” even hints at '80s stadium rock influence with its booming drums and synth organ before revealing a feedback-heavy guitar lead. The result is reminiscent of last year’s Beach House record in its nostalgic dream pop aura, and it leads seamlessly into the title track and climax of the album.
“What Chaos Is Imaginary” is perhaps Girlpool’s mission statement, a track written by Tividad. "I wrote it the most vulnerable point I have had thus far in my life," she said, according to a press release. She paints a vivid picture of her struggles with mental illness, describing what it feels like to have “your head in the clouds and two eyes on the shaking ground,” tiredly panicking at the realized fear that all of this perceived chaos is in her head. The song builds with intense harmonies and a stunning string section composed like an old film score. When reflecting on Girlpool’s first album, on which the duo rarely played more than one instrument at a time and always alternated between two simple chords, it’s remarkable to see how far they’ve come.
With 14 songs, “What Chaos Is Imaginary” does have repeated ideas and forgettable tracks. If they could trim the filler and put more focus on fewer songs, however, Girlpool have demonstrated the talent to create a masterpiece in their near future. The duo’s newest album has evenly distributed high points and some brilliant moments, and despite major personal and musical transformations, Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad continue to get better at doing what they do best: artfully and honestly expressing their vulnerability.
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