Born as a restless and patchy duo dreamed into existence by teenage best friends, Girlpool spent much of their time as a band in a state of transformation. Early recordings were marked by tight, unison vocal harmonies and melodic songs played without a drummer, leaving an unusual but welcome space for their reflective and plaintive lyrics to resonate. By the time of their 2017 sophomore album Powerplant, Girlpool resembled something more in line with a standard indie rock band, adding drums to the equation and turning up the volume on the formula that they began with. Third album What Chaos Is Imaginary continues to shift, mirroring changes in both the individual lives of the songwriters and their collaborative identity. If the addition of drums took Girlpool's skeletal sound into new dimensions, the 14 songs here expand on that tenfold, adding electronics, synths, and even orchestral arrangements to the mix. Nocturnal synth pads and '80s drum-machine sounds guide "Minute in Your Mind," and the title track adds live string arrangements to this foundation. Several songs bear echoes of Elliott Smith's Figure 8-era delivery, in particularly the jaunty "Hire" and the whispering sparsity of "All Blacked Out." Other songs employ crushingly distorted guitar tones or syrupy tempos, recalling the lonely glow of '90s slowcore and shoegaze. While the album again feels larger and crowded with new sounds, the most striking difference on What Chaos Is Imaginary is how distinct songwriting partners Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker sound from one another. Girlpool's dual lead vocals and bold harmonies were defining aspects of their sound. Even in songs about loneliness or uncertainty, listeners could take solace in the audible friendship of Tividad and Tucker's singing. What Chaos Is Imaginary was recorded after the duo no longer lived regularly in the same cities, and many songs consist of just one vocalist instead of the warm mesh of harmonizing. After the release of Powerplant, Tucker came out as transgender and began a hormone replacement treatment that lowered his singing voice, adding another layer of evolution to the band's sound. Both band members lead excellent songs here, but the collaboration and friendship that the band was built on is harder to locate here. When the spirit of earlier recordings returns on straightforward and pop-friendly songs like "Joseph's Dad" or "Pretty," it feels out of place with the newer instrumentation and songwriting choices. Ultimately, there's something forced about What Chaos Is Imaginary, if only in that it feels like several different albums struggling to fit cohesively together. More than an exciting new chapter in the story of a band always hungry for change, the album points to the potential of future solo albums from both Girlpool members. Even though some of the huge shake-ups of instrumentation and songwriting styles work well, Tucker and Tividad rarely sound like they're connecting and it makes What Chaos Is Imaginary harder to connect with.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas