I was freshly 19 at the time of Girlpool’s debut, Before the World Was Big and, especially at an age where a lot of your thoughts feel devastatingly unique, listening to it felt a bit like someone was looking straight into my brain. In retrospect, Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker — as evidenced by their album’s widespread popularity among that generation of late-teen DIY indie rockers — were, at 19 and 20, simply masters at articulating the near-universal confident unsteadiness of being that age, of being thrown into an uncertain and exciting world and sandwiched in between innocence and the loss of it.
With each awestruck, raw, vocal harmony-centric song, they stitched together our dichotomous grasp backward toward an innocent world no more complicated than our immediate surroundings and forward toward “sureness in the way we say our names.” By the time their 2017 sophomore album Powerplant rolled around — packed with more intensity and occasionally slipping into some playful experimentation absent from their first album — it felt a bit like we were growing up alongside them. Now, the third iteration of a catalogue centrally chronicling the process of moving from one self, one phase to the next, What Chaos Is Imaginary gives us the pleasure of hearing Girlpool continue to come into themselves even further, with the most messy honesty of any of their work.
One of the most prominent audible differences since their last album comes as a result of Tucker, who came out as trans in the time between albums, beginning testosterone, causing their voice to lower into a tenor range. This — alongside this being the first of their albums in which the individual songs were written independently by Tucker and Tividad, some tracks even appearing in earlier stages on Tividad’s solo album — creates harmonious separation of two voices that once presented as a indifferentiable unit. But make no mistake, even though they’re individual stories and voices come through on this album, one of Girlpool’s biggest strengths is, and always has been, their palpable bond, creative and otherwise. They’re still Girlpool, and the music they’re making is still a snapshot of the stories they’re telling together. “It’s no coincidence that this album really carries our identities in two hands,” Tucker told Document of their album cover decision. “It’s pretty beautiful that the image conveys there are two people at work and we’re supporting one another, up in the sky.”
The instrumentation’s also far more fleshed out than that of their earlier work as well, with the addition of a sporadic, lush string section, more robust and complex rhythm, and frequent experimental detours that wouldn’t necessarily be out of place on lauded ’90s noise rock or shoegaze favorites. And while simplicity and approachability is so much of what Girlpool did so perfectly in the beginning, for better or worse, the risks and bold musical nature sound like a result of the boundary-pushing confidence that you gain every time you feel yourself grow, every time you settle into yourself a bit more.