Listening to Girlpool’s startling 2015 debutBefore the World Was Big felt like digging into a bag of saltwater taffy, unwrapping small portions that were taut, sticky sweet, and a little bit briny. On “Ideal World” and “Crowded Stranger,” Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker sang in bright unison, delivering lyrics about the tribulations of teenager-hood through the vocal equivalent of a forced smile.
The two voices would interlock, jump into a quick harmony, and then merge back into unison, constantly fluttering between brashness and ingratiation, confrontation and introspection. Comedy and camp occasionally crept in, most notably when Tividad and Tucker slipped into childlike vernacular while musing on world-weary themes: “I just miss how it felt standing next to you / Wearing matching dresses before the world was big.” Often backed by only electric guitar and bass, early Girlpool vacuum-sealed that “big world” into compressed units, with songs as short as 39 seconds and the whole LP running less than half an hour. You could inhale the whole thing in the course of a brisk afternoon walk.
On its third album, What Chaos Is Imaginary, Girlpool has given the music room to stretch out, inflate and generally take up more space—not just in total running time but also in thematic scope and instrumental accompaniment. What Chaos was produced by David Tolomei, who has engineered records for Beach House, Daughter, Torres, and other groups known for summoning darkness through bold vocals swirled into maelstroms of electronic noise. The album thickens Girlpool’s sound by adding drum tracks, synthesizers, and even a string octet on the title track. Dreary, sustained organ chords have become a sonic hallmark, as have grungy guitars and multi-tracked vocals trudging forward at a dour pace. (The cut “Minute in Your Mind” exemplifies this tendency.) In many ways, this new aesthetic suits Girlpool’s evolution: from a point-of-view that was unabashedly adolescent to a phase of young adulthood often processed through wandering rumination rather than pithy, sarcastic takes on life. But this newfound expansiveness comes with certain drawbacks, for pulling something into new and bigger shapes risks stretching the material thin.
Tividad and Tucker report having changed their songwriting approach since 2017’s Powerplant out of necessity, crafting work in different cities rather than building songs “together with four hands, from the ground up,” according to Tucker. The distance shows on What Chaos, which covers a broad generic expanse ranging from shoegaze to rockabilly to punk and dream pop. A good example would be back-to-back tracks “Where You Sink” and “Hire,” the first sung by Tividad and the latter by Tucker. “Where You Sink” conjures a sleepy haze through slurpy beats, fuzzed-out guitars, andante tempo, and Tividad’s plangent vocal. The song simmers and even drags, fitting for its lyrics about slogging through a depressive episode: “You look like a kid from outer space / Always trying to plan your next escape.” The song captures its message through mood, setting a tone that subsequent compositions jarringly disrupt.
“Hire” follows with a mellow rockabilly guitar figure that guest performer Ross Wallace Chait’s muscular percussion ramps up. Tucker’s vocal arrives warbly yet urgent, hitting the sweet spot between earnestness and rage out of which Bright Eyes’s Conor Oberst has made a career. Since Girlpool’s last album, Tucker has been taking testosterone as part of what he terms his “gender flow; and the hormone has lowered his voice a full octave. Though Tucker has described the challenges of adapting to a changing vocal range, songs like “Hire” showcase a new timbre that’s captivating both alone and beneath Tividad’s silky falsetto. “Hire,” however, feels like a promising composition cut off at the knees, its rockabilly pedigree promising a verse-chorus-bridge progression rather than the scattershot succession of lines that ceases two minutes into the song. Though Girlpool has resisted traditional pop/rock song structures in the past, “Hire” could easily have sustained its propulsive energy rather than switching it off right after the guitar solo.
Elsewhere, minimalism tiptoes in, as “All Blacked Out” and “Hoax and the Shrine” slough off the synthesizers and drum tracks, leaving just raw guitars and vocals behind. “All Blacked Out” centers some lovely, layered fingerpicking and the intimate contours of Tucker’s voice, the instrumentation so gentle that you can hear Tucker’s lips parting to sing as well as each breath he takes while doing so. “Hoax and the Shrine” gives Tividad a turn at quiet introspection, her falsetto floating above plucked acoustic guitar strings while asking spiritual questions like “Can a god spill milk?” and “Does belief reside between the hoax and the shrine?” This wry glance at life’s elusive mysteries recalls the duo’s early knack for clever, sarcastic turns of phrase.
Girlpool’s trajectory from Before the World Was Big to What Chaos Is Imaginary proves how an album can be many things: a meticulously cohesive monologue delivered by multiple voices, or a notebook stuffed full of intriguing yet somewhat dispersed ideas. What Chaos falls into the latter category, though its title includes a self-referential wink that implies the band both perceives and embraces the work’s disarray. As Tividad and Tucker explore their identities together and apart, What Chaos will probably look in retrospect like a necessary way station through which the duo passed on the way to someplace that feels a little more like home.