Girlpool’s ‘What Chaos Is Imaginary’ hosts a wedding in the seams
Mike Donovan | Wednesday, February 20, 2019
“Before the World was Big” — big enough for Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad of Girlpool to have a voice of their own — the duo had to share. “Before the World was Big,” it was impossible to tell where Tucker’s voice ended and Tividad’s began. “Wearing matching dresses before the world was big,” Tucker and Tividad, confined to the higher registers, wove an uncanny helix from their voices, which would find, and pierce, the unassuming listener.
By “Powerplant,” the world had grown bigger, spacious enough for drum kits and stomp-boxes. Sonically, Tucker and Tividad had room to spread out, to distort voices and guitars in small transgressive bursts — “Corner Store’s” mid-song feedback eruption, “Static Somewhere’s” consummate fuzz-war. Still, the pair’s discharges were not commonplace. Each transgression punctuated the equilibrium, chaotic flares wrestling with the reverberating drone.
It’s 2019 and the world is even bigger — big enough for Cleo Tucker to come out as transgender and, via hormone therapy, drop their voice to a register with which they can identify; big enough for Tucker and Tividad to harmonize as distinct components; big enough for the duo to compose sprawling soundscapes reminiscent of Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and My Bloody Valentine; big enough to invite chaos (once buried in the underground, the imaginary, the unreal) into Girlpool’s creative sphere.
“What Chaos is Imaginary,” Girlpool’s third LP, makes full use of the space it’s given. In contrast to its stylistically consistent predecessors, the new record functions as a montage — flowing track by track through the indie rock pantheon.
The opening track, “Lucy’s,” works as both a thesis and an outline for the sonic content of the record to follow. After a scathing, fuzz-driven intro, Tucker (now a rich tenor, having started hormone therapy) stakes a claim on “the unfamiliar stage” — a promise that the ensuing record will redefine Girlpool’s current boundaries. “I want a fine downtown for the caroler,” Tucker sings, foreshadowing the jangly and verbose slacker-pop of tracks like “Stale Device” and “Pretty.” But they also sing of “a meditation for when you sway and sink,” something that “sounds like quiet when the sun goes down,” something stripped to the bone like “All Blacked Out” and “The Hoax and the Shrine.” Lastly, Tucker offers the image of “a scene I kept dreaming that made me swollen and sharp,” a scene like those conjured in the synthesized psycho-architecture of “Where You Sink” and “Minute In Your Mind.”
Lyrically, “What Chaos Is Imaginary” channels indie rock’s poet laureates, from the tenacious verse of the queen herself (Patti Smith) to the esoteric beatnik of 90s legends Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) and Stuart Berman (Silver Jews).
The album’s title track — a wistful dream-popper that investigates a character who “live[s] halfway / In a transient home off the highway” and struggles to distinguish between a “silver lining” and a “ripping seam” — exemplifies the existential problem at the record’s core. To be non-binary, with your “head in the clouds” and “two eyes on the shaking ground,” while occupying a space structured for the binary, in which “reality” necessarily negates the “imaginary,” is to accept chaos as your norm. Even though you can “Build yourself some boundaries,” or live comfortably in binary frameworks, to do so is to “kill the dream.”
The subsequent track, “Hoax and the Shrine,” holds a pair of shears to the anemic strands connecting the real to the imaginary. Trividad’s acute soprano drops us in a space of certainty — “My real world, my empty room” wherein “The lake dictates the news / […] creates supply and demand.” But Tividad quickly exterminates our comfort with a question — “Can a god spill milk?” — restructuring the “empty room” as a “shapeless station,” a perversion of “that nebulous dichotomy town.” In doing so, she severs the connection between real and imagined, tries to escape the “Disbelief” that “resides between the hoax and the shrine.”
“Roses,” the record’s slow and saturated conclusion, synthesizes the contradictory arguments that “What Chaos is Imaginary” and “Hoax and the Shrine” put forth. “Create the vague you need,” Tucker and Tividad advise from behind the track’s wall of noise, “Then get married in the seams.”
The latter image, that of a marriage in the seams, perfectly encapsulates the chaos and chemistry that flow through Girlpool’s latest record. While the record looks toward many, often disparate, sources for its content, it never leans on any of them. It sits comfortably in the middle while the chaos of warring ideas envelops it in a cloud of bittersweet noise.
Album:“What Chaos Is Imaginary”
Favorite Tracks: “Lucy’s,” “Where You Sink,” “What Chaos is Imaginary”
If You Like: Sharon Van Etten, Yo La Tengo, Slowdive
Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5