Earlier this month, I was driving from Austin to a city deep in West Texas, on a country road where there’s absolutely nothing but the thick, potent smell of exhaust from old work trucks, hundreds of miles of farmland with hordes of goats and cattle, and, perhaps most attributed to this part of the state more than any other – the vast, endless expanse of sky directly above and in front of you, morphing and changing its vivid coloration every hour like some sort of living, breathing creature suspended and splayed out across the clouds.
What Chaos is Imaginary, which I listened to during the majority of my drive, became synonymous with this sky the more it played – for despite the subtle variation in genre and emotion as it went from track to track, still it seemed to evoke something completely and unabashedly genuine as a whole, to the point where I believe it is the best Girlpool album to date. This could also be due to best friends Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker’s incredibly thoughtful collaboration this time around, vastly different from years past.
Okay, while I admittedly have minimal knowledge of Girlpool’s first two albums, I am aware of are the ways in which the Los Angeles duo shaped the diy genre back when they were still teenagers – the unique energy within the raw, stripped-down guitar and explosive vocals in 2015’s Before the World Was Big, the industrial nature of Powerplant after they brought in a drummer two years later. But things have changed considerably since then – graduating from high school and fully entering “the real world,” the ever-growing battle with mental health, and, perhaps most immediately discernible in WCII, Tucker’s recent transition and hormone replacement therapy, which has brought their voice down an octave. WCII also features each member’s solo work, which led to the album being composed of half Tividad songs, half Tucker songs, written and initially recorded separately in different cities rather than in stereo.
Despite the distance in which these songs were written, both members focus on the tumultuous evolution from youth to adult in their narratives, the sudden, violent shattering and careful reassembling of identity, the crippling loneliness and isolation that lurks behind and strikes during moments of weakness. And herein lies Girlpool’s immense strength in evoking emotion – for even without hearing albums one and two in full – without any context on anything, really – I could still feel the waves of vulnerability within WCII, personally and painfully so at times, to the point where I feel it truly deserves to be seen as its own, independent entity, the start of a brand new beginning for the duo in every sense of the word.
The search for identity and individuality resulted in tracks varying in sound, freely placing shoegaze next to pop punk, synth heavy goth rock next to sweeping orchestral ballads. It feels strangely cathartic, almost as if emotions were expelled the moment they were felt, no matter how personal, how intimate, how painful. The lyrics, though esoteric at times, are visceral, jagged, but still strangely beautiful and incredibly heavy in emotion – “Stale Device,” for instance, which touches on Tividad’s struggles with mental health, has her confessing at the guitar heavy breakdown that “the sickness kept me company/ I’m trying to be in the myth and in the thrill/ In a sharp malaise/ The shrillness of a life so still.” Meanwhile, “All Blacked Out” shows a soft side of Tucker, backed by velveteen guitar plucks, “slowly coming down from a midnight wish,” while at the end of “Hire” they opt for something far more physically purgative, both perfect ways to show off the range of their new voice.
The more jaunty, upbeat songs, ironically, are also the ones that deal with the more sensitive parts of self-esteem, how our own perception of ourselves can often be the most scathing. “Lucky Joke,” with its stylized guitar, has a melody you’re tempted to dance along with until Tividad’s lyrics kick in, while “Pretty,” arguably the catchiest song on the entire album, is essentially self-deprecation set to music – “I’m not the kid you like a lot,” “I’m not a dreamer in their prime,” “consistently not worth your time.” Tividad’s vocals are soft but pained – tired even – almost as if these independent phrases have been cruel mantras repeated over and over by her own subconscious. “You look pretty broken,” she realizes as the guitar falls away, a brief moment of clarity within the noise.
And, like clockwork, the album breathlessly flowed into the title track just as my particular sky was leaning into sunset, Tividad’s vocals dissolving into the dying orange crush that hid behind the clouds, emerging and turning into a brazen purple just as the orchestral interludes wandered in after the chorus. I had heard it once before, but not like this – I listened and stared ahead as the sky calmly and perfectly raged in front of me, tears pricking greedily at the corners of my eyes.
“Got your head in the clouds/ And two eyes on the shaking ground”
While I may be at a particularly vulnerable point in my early twenties where I can deeply relate or at least empathize with some of her sentiments, I cannot be alone in saying that there was something within this poetic, visceral narrative that plunged deep into my heart like a dagger and deliberately twisted the hilt, as if it was composed of my own sentiments, my own thoughts – I knew immediately that it was one of those songs, so full of substance and empathy that anyone listening could find some sort of peace somewhere within it, adjacent to the violins, somewhere underneath the swells of choral synth. I knew it was one of those albums, representative of something more – more in the sense of what’s inexplicable, the ways emotion can multiply and blend into each other until you’re left with a blurry image, the irony of feeling too much and yet still feeling numb, empty, too recklessly far into an altered reality we make up for ourselves.
This is an incredibly personal track for Tividad, which she explained in a post on her instagram:
[“What Chaos Is Imaginary”] is a song I wrote at the most vulnerable point I have ever had thus far in my life. I was living very far from “home” and not taking the best care of myself on any level. No matter what I did, I was getting into situations that were emotionally, spiritually, and physically putting me at some type of risk. These situations culminated in me having horrific PTSD (I didn’t realize it was this until long after) during which I found it completely impossible to imagine living beyond the time I was in. The “present moment” was impossible to even begin to participate in – there was very nearly a white noise over all interactions and I couldn’t focus in any social situations unless I somehow found a way to be in my wrong mind. This song is about reckoning with this – trying to find a path to forgiving myself, attempts to redevelop a relationship with the world where I could find some illusion of “safety” and belief in the fact that I could ultimately care for myself. It’s about self-healing and learning to believe in inner light in spite of anything else.”
Much like the sky – its violent, raging sunsets, the calmness of its resulting, beautifully inevitable sunrises – What Chaos is Imaginary is reliable, perhaps initially painful but then soon reveals itself to be something akin to a medicinal salve – pain and vulnerability in the background, self-healing and forgiveness at the forefront. But, aside from my now probably overused metaphors, this album is absolutely beautiful. It highlights not only the frustrations that come with change, but the amount we grow as a result, taking in peace as well as the chaos.
photo by Gina Canavan