What do Girlpool sound like? In 2022, it’s a fair question. Since their self-titled debut EP came out in 2014, the duo of Avery Tucker and Harmony Tividad haven’t stayed in one place. When the world first met them, their music was lo-fi and raw. The bawdy lyricism of “American Beauty” and the sharp screams on “Jane” made them stand out amongst a sea of burgeoning indie darlings. As time wore on, the group filled out and incorporated drums into Powerplant. Their last record, What Chaos Is Imaginary, also saw them write independently and stitch the songs into a complete piece. This method led to the record’s noticeable lack of definable genre. Songs were laden with radiant synths and more experimental touches, as Tucker and Tividad bobbed and weaved through gauzy shoegaze dreamscapes and strikingly straightforward indie rock. While the songs themselves may stand on their own, the resulting larger product felt unfocused. Their new album, Forgiveness, similarly leans into discord. Its songs fall into one of two lanes: icy, industrial-inspired pop, or wistful, cinematic country-rock.
When Tividad takes the lead, we’re treated to extravagant levels of melodrama and Old Hollywood homage. The immaculate “Faultline” is the closest Girlpool have ever drifted to Lana Del Rey-style balladry. Lilting piano and a lush string section make Tividad sound like she’s been making this kind of music for decades. It’s an experiment for the group, but you’d never know. Forgiveness’ opener, “Nothing Gives Me Pleasure” is a song as delicate as it is jarring. Tividad’s voice is sweet as she sings about “biting her lip till it bleeds” and “smiling at the feeling.” Other lyrics like, “Hold me down until I scream / Or till you empathize,”’ lean into the visceral nature of a doomed relationship. There’s tumult here, and Tividad isn’t afraid of making it uncomfortable. It’s easily a highlight of the record, with its crunchy, serrated electronic arrangement swirling around Tividad’s vocals like a torture device. As with “Nothing Gives Me Pleasure,” we hear twisted writing about sex and love on “Junkie.” While the production and central lyric, “I’m a sin for the saint you make me / Let your body destroy and change me,” are brilliant, a feeling of insensitivity bogs the song down. Using the framing of addiction in relation to an intense relationship is harmful. It calls to mind Mitski’s “Crack Baby,” a song rendered unlistenable by its unfortunate narrative. The best of Tividad’s songs, though, is “Butterfly Bulletholes.” Dreamy piano and synths give the song a soft glow, and her voice melts into the arrangement as she sings of the struggle to adapt to change—“Everything is still the same / The flowers look at me the same way / But I’m holding on for my dear life / Confusing bullets for butterflies.” After so many songs cut from this cloth, it feels like a triumphant culmination, a satisfying end to a series.
The contributions from Tucker are much less shocking, and more heartfelt. The rollicking, dreamy “Dragging My Life into a Dream” finds Tucker channeling Sheryl Crow. It’s a touching rumination on the fear of being alone—“Still chasing the heart I pushed away / It’s like last year put a hand on my face / Over my eyes and I drifted away.” Despite the track’s heavy subject, it leans hard enough on its melody that it draws your attention to how catchy it is. Tucker also shines on “Violet,” a country ballad spilling over with vivid imagery. Beginning with gentle strums, the song almost immediately signals that it’s going to open up into something powerful, and when it gets there, it doesn’t disappoint. The song’s vast open space fills with screaming guitar and whining synth organs, a microcosm of the band’s history. Tucker is well-suited to these more guitar-focused tracks and feels like a mismatch when he leads the more electronic ones. “Lie Love Lullaby,” a skittering song about Tucker’s innocence leading to poor romantic decisions, leaves his hushed delivery sounding lost in his own creation. This is similarly an issue on “Country Star,” a massive track bolstered by towering drum machines, that ultimately smother his presence, and obfuscate the captivating story he’s telling.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, the group described qualms they had with the making of What Chaos Is Imaginary, acknowledging the awkwardness inherent in transition. Transitional records are often only noticed in hindsight, looking back on an artist’s oeuvre years later. It’s apparent even now, though, that the group is still growing and refusing to choose any one path. An inventive, varied record made in this way can succeed, but there needs to be something holding it all together, and Forgiveness is void of any such spine. What we get instead are two concepts pitted against each other, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, but denied a full exploration of its space. There’s no way to know where Girlpool are going. There never has been, and if they have it their way, there never will be.
Eric Bennett is a music critic with bylines at Post-Trash, The Grey Estates and The Alternative. They are also a co-host of Endless Scroll, a weekly podcast covering the intersection of music and internet culture. You can follow them on Twitter at @violet_by_hole.
Watch Girlpool’s May 2021 Paste Studio session below.