When I agreed to review the new Girlpool album, What Choas is Imaginary, I figured I would trash it. I loved the music Harmony and Cleo Tucker made when they first came onto the scene. The duo used tight harmonies sung over bare-bones guitar and bass riffs to channel the energy of the Riot Grrrl music just coming back into vogue at the time, but their second album just pilled on drums and layers of sludge that dulled the sugar rush of their earlier work. That album, Powerplant, had some good tunes, but was mostly forgettable. After sitting down with What Chose Is Imaginary I’m pleased to say the band has some new tricks up their sleeves. Their songs might not be as bright and digestible as they once were, but the band still has the same knack for tunes and rebellious spirit that made me a fan.
Once Girlpool compared their sound to a bran muffin in a Vevo interview: “a lot of texture, dense but simple, fills you up.” What Choas is Imaginary is similarly textured and dense, but it’s anything but simple. Instead, it captures the uneasiness of modern life, where nothing is certain and everyone is following false rules.
During the Powerplant press cycle, Cleo came out as nonbinary and started taking testosterone, causing his voice to drop a couple octaves. What Chaos Is Imaginary begins and ends with this new raspy baritone. This made the mirroring and blending the band once employed not possible. Being unable to pull their old tricks opens up more for the pair to explore. Where Powerplant just seemed like earlier Girlpool but with a full band, What Chaos is Imaginary see’s the pair breaking their entire formula open.
These songs simmer, exploring multiple different shades of instrumentation and structure. They still sound like Girlpool, but now they also sound like the Gorillaz, Courtney Barnette, or Let’s Eat Grandma. “Chemical Freeze” is a treat: shuffling guitar noises merge with strange sounds while Harmony adlibs vocals airily over Cleo’s melody. On “Where You Sink” Cleo’s voice is a shadow underneath Harmony’s while the band brews up a grungy stew similar to their past work. On “Pretty” (short for pretty broken) the pair pick up the tempo even as Harmony sings “I’m not a dreamer in their prime. I”m constantly not with your time” in a downcast lilt. The Cleo-penned “Swamp and Bay” and “Hire” sound almost country in their swing.
While they sonically tackle a multitude of styles with ease, lyrically Cleo and Harmony don’t sound sure of much. The album is filled with imagery of false idols. “I wandered around in a shapeless station,” Harmony sings on “Hoax and the Shrine” later continuing with Cleo that, “I thought I looked with both my eyes, said life is only half my size,” on “Jospeph’s Dad.”
This sense of searching for something real, something more, comes up repeatedly. “God send me to a place where nothing can go wrong,” Cleo sings on “Lucky Joke”. These escapist dreams are only made worse by the grim chaos of the real world. “Its a tug of war with his dreaming and the floor,” sings Cleo on Roses. Both of these ideas are fully realized on the What Choas Is Imaginary’s stunning title track. The song begins with chilling synths before swelling with guitars and a string orchestra. Harmony sings “Everything’s overrated. I’m watching from too close. I’ll take one ticket to heaven, dressed up as the Holy Ghost,” full of action and purpose. I’ll have what she’s having.