The catchiest, most immediately entrancing track on the new album from L.A. duo Girlpool is called “Pretty.” Harmony Tividad delivers the indie-pop earworm with the painful precision the group has become known for: “I’m not a dreamer in their prime,” she sings. “I’m consistently not worth your time.” The word “pretty,” it turns out, is merely a descriptor for the splintered world of disarray that Girlpool are invested in exploring on their forward-thinking third album. “Pretty broken,” Tividad sings in unison with bandmate Cleo Tucker, during what might pass for a chorus. “Pretty broken.”
That push-and-pull dynamic — between the group’s easy knack for pop melody and its newly urgent need to challenge convention and seek new modes of expression — is the driving force behind What Chaos Is Imaginary. The 14 songs here, composed separately by Tucker and Tividad, represent a new working process for the duo, an intermediary statement bridging their old way of being and a new creative existence.
That process is best served during moments like Tucker’s “Minute In Your Mind,” a song that begins as a downtrodden, Eighties-referencing solo meditation until Tividad unexpectedly joins on high harmony halfway through.
“Clocking in, but dreaming I could quit,” the duo sing on “Hoax and the Shrine”, pointing at the newly bleary-eyed, fractured worldview they’ve taken on in the four years since the hopefulness of their breakthrough “Chinatown.” They prop up that worldview with a new set of sonic tools: morose string sections, experimental reverb, murky vocals, all arranged behind Girlpool’s most fully-realized production to date. There’s a slow-moving density to this album, broken up with occasional bursts of pop energy: the early-Wilco roots rock that guides “Swamp and Bay,” the swinging Nineties riff on “Lucky Joke.”
What Chaos Is Imaginary also marks a lyrical and creative breakthrough for Tucker, who, singing in a newly low vocal register, addresses much of the album to an undefined second-person figure. “Create the vague you need/And get married in the seams,” Tucker sings on the album finale “Roses.” “Come and lay on top of me.”
Throughout the album, Girlpool illustrate the struggles of navigating expectations amidst the personal and musical changes Tucker and Tividad have undergone in the past few years. The result is an impressive balancing act, a sound grounded in the band’s tradition that is nevertheless constantly pushing forward. “They see you how they want to,” as the group puts it, “You don’t even have to try.”