I have a very good friend who will never get over what happened with the Mountain Goats. This friend discovered the Mountain Goats when the Mountain Goats was just John Darnielle, slashing at an acoustic guitar and braying weirdly perfect two-minute poetic sentiments into boombox microphones. When the Mountain Goats became an actual band, one that would feature additional instruments and record in actual studios, he lost all interest. It wasn’t for him anymore. (I don’t think he even likes Tallahassee.) This guy knows that he is wrong, that the band has built this whole other catalog that goes way beyond what Darnielle was doing during that early embryonic period, that most of the people who love the Mountain Goats love them for other reasons than his. He doesn’t care. He has his Mountain Goats, and everyone else has theirs. For the longest time, I thought my friend was nuts. And then Girlpool happened.
In 2014, Girlpool, a duo of two Los Angeles teenagers, posted their self-recorded self-titled debut EP on Bandcamp. I thought it was a fucking miracle. It’s hard, rudimentary, perfect music: two best friends playing spidery, skeletal guitar and bass (no drums) and yelling in unison over them. They were pissed off and defiant, but they also knew they were kids, figuring things out with each other’s help, meeting the world as a unified force. I found it terribly moving, and pretty exciting, too. And then Girlpool became a real band. They recorded two increasingly sophisticated albums. They started using drums. They came to sound less brash, more reflective. I knew that their albums were good, but they didn’t give me that same jolt. And so I got used to approaching new Girlpool music with a weird and unearned sense of loss. They were not that band I’d first come across in 2014, and they never would be again. I knew this should not bum me out, and yet it did.
And then I heard What Chaos Is Imaginary. What Chaos Is Imaginary, the duo’s third album, is not recognizably the work of the same band who made that first Girlpool EP. The sounds are different. The voices are different. The members of the band are singing about different things, and they’re not singing about them in unison anymore. They’re not kids anymore. The band’s full context has shifted. And yet what they’ve done on the music is so overwhelming and undeniable that I now have to confront my own dumb attachments and let them drift away. They’re too good right now. For me to miss that because of my own baggage, it would be a fucking crime against myself.
What Chaos Is Imaginary sounds like the work of a band in flux, and that’s exactly what it is. In the time since 2017’s Powerplant, the last Girlpool album, Cleo Tucker, one of the band’s two members, has come out as trans. He’s started hormone replacement therapy, and his voice has deepened and thickened. Girlpool’s members moved from LA to Philadelphia to New York, and now they’re back in LA. And they’re not writing songs in the same ways anymore. Tucker and his bandmate Harmony Tividad have both been working on their own solo music outside of the band, and What Chaos Is Imaginary is the first album where they wrote the songs completely separately, then brought them together to arrange them. We can now hear a difference between the Tucker songs and the Tividad ones, and there was never as clear of a distinction before.
And yet What Chaos Is Imaginary still works as a cohesive whole — a document of a time of uncertain drift. Where their lyrics were once concrete and specific, they’re now more elliptical and personal, to the point where I generally can’t tell what they’re singing about. (I get shards of it. There is, for instance, the great way to describe that first move to New York: “Go running around the alphabet sea / With the freaks in the bands, with the college degrees.”) Mostly, the lyrics are evocative phrases, phrases that can catch on you even if you don’t know their complete context: “Dressed up all depressed in my Sunday best / I’m a lucky joke,” “Built yourself some boundaries just to kill a dream.”
And the new album’s sound is a whole new thing. It’s gluey and gauzy, drawing on shoegaze and dream-pop and the late-’90s music that sat on the border between emo and straight-up indie rock. There are moments on the album when Tucker (whose voice is, if anything, more expressive than it used to be) sounds like lower-register Elliott Smith. There are other moments where the band sounds like early Built To Spill, or like prime Unwound. Both Tucker and Tividad sing in murmurs, as if they’re quietly psyching themselves up, or quietly propping each other up. Girlpool have more going on musically on What Chaos Is Imaginary than on any of their previous albums — the pillowy church-organs on “Minute In Your Mind,” the delicate string arrangements on the title track. And yet the new elements never feel like flourishes. Instead, they pull you in deeper.
And in a way, the same things that drew me to Girlpool in the first place are still there on What Chaos Is Imaginary. They’ve just taken different forms. That first EP sounded to me like an album about friendship, about the intense way that kids can cling to each other when they’re just figuring things out. The moving part was the way both of their voices became one. On What Chaos Is Imaginary, the moving part is the way their voices layer over each other, alternating or quietly backing each other up. They don’t sound like they’re clinging to each other anymore. They sound like they’re helping each other out, but like they’re both on their own, wandering and figuring things out. That’s a different kind of friendship, but it’s no less important, and it’s no less moving.
Girlpool sound like a different band on What Chaos Is Imaginary because they are a different band. That’s a good thing. Nobody should have to keep being the thing they were in high school. And with What Chaos Is Imaginary, Girlpool have made an album good enough to force you to remember that.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Cherry Glazerr’s garage-pop hookfest Stuffed & Ready.
• Beirut’s wandering indie-popper Gallipoli.
• Dave Harrington Group’s electro-jazz excursion Pure Imagination, No Country.
• Astronoid’s self-titled shoegaze-metal return.
• Tiny Ruins’ indie-folk zone-out Olympic Girls.
• Guided By Voices’ lo-fi power-pop party Zeppelin Over China.
• Spielbergs’ fired-up guitar-rocker This Is Not The End.
• Balms’ ominously synthy Mirror.
• Rustin Man’s expansive, contemplative Drift Code.
• The Specials’ elder-statesman return Encore.
• Le Butcherettes’ garage-punk attack bi/MENTAL.
• Lou Doillon’s hazy, acoustic Soliloquy.
• Thyla’s What’s On Your Mind EP.