Until now, each new Girlpool album has signalled a momentous stylistic change for the duo — the strikingly sparse shouting-and-strumming of their self-titled EP gave way to an elegant and idiosyncratic indie in 2015’s Before The World Was Big, and rather than settling into this style in the manner of Frankie Cosmos and Snail Mail, they toughened and saturated their sound in 2017’s Powerplant. Each evolution of their sound has felt deliberate, their music retaining its essential characteristics as the duo gained confidence and explored new sonic horizons. While this stylistic restlessness continues — Cleo Tucker recently said in an interview for Document Journal that he is “so over rock music” — their newest album What Chaos Is Imaginary is less an upending than a synthesis of the styles the band has surveyed so far and a careful glance in a new direction.
The new material is subtle, like a filter on a photograph. There are several songs on the new album that would fit in on Powerplant, and the newness is mostly layered atop this solid foundation. A few songs are adorned with the incandescent glow of an electric organ, there are occasional experiments with drum machines, the recording and production style is generally thicker and dreamier, a few songs remind the less submerged moments in Beach House’s discography. Possibly the most striking moment on the album is the title track, on which Harmony Tividad’s voice hovers over a sparse arrangement that is later unexpectedly (but seamlessly) joined by a string quartet. It almost brings to mind Lana Del Rey in its expansive sweep; it made me feel as though Girlpool were always destined for this scale. That the following track, “Hoax And The Shrine,” opens with an unadorned acoustic guitar is a reminder of the band’s scope — the album hangs together improbably well considering the eclecticism of its materials.
Between the recording of Powerplant and What Chaos Is Imaginary, Cleo Tucker began his gender transition, which included testosterone injections that lowered his voice by about an octave. Girlpool’s earliest music was defined by the close proximity of Tucker and Tividad’s voices, which sang in close harmony when not in unison to the point of sonic indistinguishability. While neither of them take the role of “fronting” the group now, they take turns taking the lead instead of singing in unison. This separateness mirrors the creative process that the duo approached for the album — Tividad and Tucker were known to have a tightly collaborative creative process, but for this album they lived separately and wrote songs on their own. Many of the songs on this album can be found in demo form on Tividad and Tucker’s separate bandcamp and soundcloud pages, but on the album, the other member of the duo usually joins in on background vocals in a role gently supportive rather than enmeshed.
If Girlpool’s music is “about” anything when considered as a whole, it’s about navigating a burgeoning adulthood — ambition, anxiety, love and its nearby feelings, the constant shifting of overlapping comfort zones. While Girlpool have thoroughly matured as musicians, the album still lives in the yearning mental spaces of their first releases, thoroughly elevated and expanded.