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Girlpool - What Chaos is Imaginary Music Album Reviews

Weaving in and out of concrete, direct, indie-rock songwriting and meditative, impressionistic dream pop, Girlpool’s third album features their most expansive and surreal songs to date.

A few songs into Girlpool’s 2017 album Powerplant, all the rules the band had set for themselves seemed to fly out the window. The break comes during “Corner Store,” a 90-second jaunt built on twangy guitar chords and the close-knit harmonies of the group’s two singers, Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad. Shortly into the track, the guitars erupt into a squall of feedback and distortion; it’s as if we’ve been lifted from the world of Girlpool and plopped down right in the middle of a Sonic Youth jam. After a few measures, the hard-rock spell ends, and the song continues on like it never happened. No other songs on the album call back to that brief interruption. Girlpool, known for rendering the world through a quasi-surrealist but ultimately soft lens, let loose a little chaos.

The boldness contained in that spontaneous bout of noise spills over into the duo’s third LP, What Chaos Is Imaginary. Weaving in and out of concrete, direct, indie-rock songwriting and meditative, impressionistic dream pop, the record takes up more space than any of Girlpool’s previous music. Guitar chords tend to land with a hefty crunch, bleeding distortion across the field of sound rather than keeping clean and tightly wound. A few songs skirt Girlpool’s usual rock instrumentation in favor of drum machines and synth organs. The record crests and falls, agitated on one track, melancholic and serene on the next.

What Chaos is Imaginary is the first album Girlpool has released since Tucker came out as trans and began taking testosterone that lowered his voice to a tenor range. Where on previous albums the band’s two singers trailed each other, singing nested melodies, their voices are now clearly differentiated. When they harmonize, a bright friction between their ranges adds a new dimensionality to the music.

Suddenly, there are Tividad songs and there are Tucker songs, two discrete threads that wind together into a Girlpool album. They pass the baton on lead vocals, playing off of each other as much as they play with each other. Certain songs on the record began as solo recordings; “Lucy’s,” the punchy fuzz-rock number that opens the album, is a Tucker song, while “Where You Sink” and “Joseph’s Dad” both appear in embryonic form on Tividad’s acoustic 2018 solo release, Oove Is Rare.

A few idiosyncratic lyrical gestures (puzzle pieces, glue) recur here from Powerplant, which can make songs like “Stale Device,” with its tried-and-true rock grounding, sound like outgrowths of the band’s last album. Girlpool’s lyrics are so striking that any repetition tends to call attention to itself, especially when it’s employed toward an image as compelling as the one Tividad uses in “Pretty”: “There was a person I once knew/He built a molehill out of glue/He claimed I was too close to stick/But somehow I’m still stuck in it.” A molehill becomes a sticky mountain trapping the song’s speaker in the past. The dense psychological weight of loss and memory bores through lines written as simply and memorably as schoolyard chants.

Many songs on What Chaos is Imaginary wrangle the messy process of constantly becoming a new person while saddled down with the memory of who you used to be. “Will I make the matinée with my newest life/And be that bright time?” Tucker asks at the start of “Hire.” On the album’s beautifully delicate title track, Tividad snakes her way out of a world bounded by a painful past. “I loved him and his violence for the pretty view/Rehearsed a strange reality, what chaos is imaginary,” she sings, pronouncing her words carefully over a steady drum machine beat, a swell of synthesizers, and intermittent strings. Girlpool have often sung about leaving one world behind for another—exiting childhood and entering adulthood, shedding the self-destructive reflexes of past selves—but they’ve never so poignantly attended to the pain of such a shift. It hurts to forsake a toxic reality and build a bigger, healthier one. But it has to happen.

A certain vertigo occurs when the present self faces the past. The older you get, the more there is to look back on, and the distance from here to there can be overwhelming. Girlpool excel at squaring history and immediacy with lyrics that float freely—not quite stories and not quite streams of consciousness, but words that hang somewhere in the middle. “Create the vague you need,” sings Tucker on “Roses,” as if laying bare the duo’s lyrical ethos. “It’s a tug-o-war/With his dreaming and the floor.” A slow guitar bristles beneath his voice, and Tividad courses in gently behind him. It sounds like he’s not quite done; the melody lilts unresolved. But the guitars eventually fade out, and Tucker doesn’t come back. He leaves you there, half dreaming, half bolted to the floorboards, in the limbo that divides the imaginary from whatever you take to be real.

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