Girlpool's sound gets bigger on their sophomore LP, but Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad’s voices still sit center stage in all their vulnerable glory.
“It Gets More Blue”—
Outside of their native Los Angeles DIY scene, Girlpool first became known for eerie nursery rhymes about standing up to slutshaming and getting eaten out to American Beauty. Still teenagers, the best friend duo of Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad spoke bluntly in dull-knife harmonies and punk primitivism. It was the power of small sounds taking hold. By the arrival of their debut 2015 full-length, Before the World Was Big, their songwriting had turned towards introspection—being young but feeling old, brimming over with equal parts hope and fear, and simply marveling at (to borrow a phrase) how strange it is to be anything at all. With just a guitar, a bass, and two voices, there wasn’t a single place to hide in their music.
Though the intensity of Tucker and Tividad’s bond has always seemed bigger than some percussion and feedback, Girlpool have properly beefed up their sound, recently adding drummer Miles Wintner. In turn, their sophomore LP Powerplant sounds a little more like everyone else, echoing second-wave emo sourness (“Your Heart”), Britpop jangle (“She Goes By”), and classic alt-rock loud-quiet-loudness throughout. But Tucker and Tividad are wise enough not to abandon what makes them distinct—that unsettling magic that exists between them when they sing, the harmonic equivalent of The Shining’s Grady twins. Breeders songs would highlight Kim and Kelley Deal’s telepathic harmonies but were rarely mixed to sound as though the compositions revolved around the voices. Girlpool have fleshed out the music but thankfully, the voice in all its vulnerable forms still sits center stage.
Under the cover of noise, Tucker and Tividad are more comfortable indulging their poetic inclinations. On Before the World Was Big, they would often pair an abstract scene or turn of phrase with tiny mantras (“Do you feel restless when you realize you're alive?” goes their best), before peppering the whole thing with their friends’ names or other lyrical tchotchkes. The proper names and loose imagery remain, but now Girlpool’s lyrics feel less tangible out the gate. The text feels more open to interpretation like, “I know I’m the weekend selling Sunday morning” (from “Kiss and Burn”). Clever one-liners still pop—from, “I’ve had crumbs in a bag in my pocket all week,” on “Corner Store” to, “I faked global warming just to get close to you,” on “It Gets More Blue”—but there’s fewer of them, devoid of Girlpool’s more dogmatic or revealing sensibilities early on.
Certainly there’s less pressure now to hang a song on their lyrics alone. Yet the emotion evoked by their spare words is like crystal behind the fingerpicking that shifts to sludgy feedback, piano lines that add cheery bursts, and drums that fill in around a feast of vocal dissonance. Lead single “123” takes hold about a minute in when Tucker and Tividad start shouting their lines, but it’s a slight drum roll that builds up the stunning, swirling tension just beforehand. “Soup” is the album’s best example of a song that wouldn’t have worked nearly as well on Before the World Was Big; it likely would have been little more than deadpan vocals rising slightly over the course of two minutes, before retreating back to a hopeless whisper about how it turns out life can be a lot. But here when they hit the climax, the guitar lines drop out as they shout, “Can you feel it?” Immediately afterward, a surge of distortion basically answers the question.
In obvious ways, Girlpool’s world has gotten bigger with Powerplant. But the thing about growing up is that the overflowing possibility of it all can make you burrow deeper into personal crevasses, forcing you to consider what you really care about. No longer teenagers, Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad seem no less overwhelmed by the world, but their methods for coping have changed. Noise can help. So can a little opacity. What Girlpool seem to crave is a moment just to be, together. “Tell me you are here/I hope I’ll find you/Static somewhere,” Cleo and Harmony sing as the album closes, their voices finally in clear harmony.