Cleo Tucker, of Indie/Folk-Grunge outfit Girlpool, recently transitioned to a trans-man, creating an interesting new dichotomy for their music. One that excites me with the release of their third album, What Chaos is Imaginary, in February. If the elegant, sweeping single – “Where You Sink” – is anything to go by, it will hopefully bring together the delicate melodies of the first record and the upgraded, electric set-up of the second.
Tucker’s transition is significant because Girlpool’s earlier work is characterized by the duo of Tucker and Harmony Tividad’s sweet, falsetto harmonies gliding over D.I.Y., folk-y guitar riffs. However, Tucker’s register as a trans-man is lower now, and one wonders what this will mean for their sound.
Anticipating the album made me nostalgic for their first record, Before the World Was Big. An album that is, without a doubt, one of my favorites of all time. And, by its very nature, an album that they couldn’t make today. It’s an album that I don’t think gets enough credit for providing something different than what we’d come to expect from guitar music.
Before the World Was Big
From the start of the album, the paralyzingly simple riff of “Ideal World” conjures up pleasant phantoms of adolescence, perfectly capturing the essence of youthful idealism. Tividad and Tucker were apparently still in High School at the time, and it shows through in the best way. The authenticity of their sound can be heard in the title track, “Before the World Was Big,” which is so simple as to seem almost discordant. The opening wind-chime effect and the blunt, playful riff becomes a cooing. The listener feels like a child in daycare. As its title suggests, there is an Eden-like sense of life as ‘yet to come.’
The music is guitar and bass-driven, which leaves room to create delightful soundscapes from the band’s charming, high-pitched vocals. There’s a lo-fi simplicity paired with unpretentious wonder that you don’t often see in the indie scene. For me, the high-point is the fifth track – “Cherry Picking” – which rises from a muted riff to a sweeping choral refrain. In this, the lyrics are, for me, at their most cryptic and succinct – “yes I am picking cherries, I have a hard time staying clean” – and also their most pretty.
The album, however great, is not without flaws. “Magnifying Glass” – the bombastic interlude between album highlights “Cherry Picking” and “Crowded Stranger” – is superfluous at best, and slightly jarring at worst. Lead single, “Chinatown,” has also always felt more boring to me than cute compared to the rest of the album. Because of this, it’s not a masterpiece. But, the reason I still love it years later is not a collection of songs, nor, exactly, a musical style. It’s a palpable feeling.
The final track, “I Like That You Can See It”, reads almost like a mission statement for the album. “Is it pouring out my body? My nervous aching. I like that you can see it,” – summing up the openness and vulnerability of their gentle approach to life on the record. Arguing that wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve is admirable. And empowering.
What Chaos is Imaginary
Before the World Was Big will always be an important album for me. I can listen to it and instantly feel eighteen again. Because of the concrete feeling of two high-school kids jamming in a bedroom, I maintain that the album could not be recreated today without great effort. And why, indeed, would they want to?
The fact that Cleo, as a trans-man, can no longer hit the notes of parts of earlier work even further reflects this. It seems to expand in-metaphor on the album’s subject matter: you’re only eighteen once. Cleo’s transition, and new vocal range, adds a fresh layer to a singularly individual band that I’ve been following for years. I will continue to follow them and, frankly, I can’t wait to hear what comes next.
Featured Image: Alice Baxley / CargoCollective.com