There’s a small but telling moment on “123”, the first song on the sophomore full-length, Powerplant, from Girlpool. The band’s duo of Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, separated by an octave, sing, “While the moth doesn’t talk/ But in the dress the holes you saw.” The song grapples with absence – that the dress could best be known by its holes, that the moth could best be known by its damage. It’s a subtle inversion, a bit of negative space in which to rest for a moment. The line even inverts the grammar from the correct “the holes you saw in the dress.” Everywhere on Powerplant, Girlpool explore the energy and shape of contrariety and emptiness.
The big story on Powerplant is that Tividad and Tucker, once a guitar-and-bass-only duo, have added drums for the first time. This new bombast arrives less than a minute into “123”. The drums, however, remain mixed well below their guitars throughout the record, as if to indicate that even when adding, the duo takes away. The energy of the band, historically and here, relies on the dynamism and vulnerability of Tividad and Tucker – the way they lean toward each other in high-wire harmonies and life-affirming chord resolutions. On Powerplant, their voices, not unlike the drums, are mixed down in the recording. The bracing sound of their duet on 2015’s “Chinatown” is absent almost everywhere here. For a band adding a rhythm section, Girlpool often sounds muted and restrained. Even on the down-stroke rocker “It Gets More Blue”, the aesthetic is that of withholding. Girlpool once defined their punk as maximum vulnerability, and it seems the band divine their new energy and edge by what they won’t do.
According to Tividad and Tucker, the songs for Powerplant are the first they’ve written independently of one another. While the arrangements show collaboration, the lyrics sound like the work of the lonely mind. Powerplant is full of the solo enterprise of watching: On “Your Heart”, they sing, “Looking at the mess I made and staring at the counter,” on “Kiss and Burn”, “I watched you pick up footsteps from the dirt,” on “Fast Dust”, “I watched her get so high makeup sinks into her spine”, and on “It Gets More Blue”, “I’m watching from the bodegas on the street.” Powerplant runs less than a half-hour, and yet it uses some variation of “look,” “see,” “stare,” and “watch” more than 20 times. While Tucker and Tividad often write oblique lyrics, snapshots of life’s small things, inside of all these accumulated banalities lies the truth of their process: They are observers. All artists observe to some degree, but the genius of Tividad and Tucker makes watching itself the art form.
Tellingly, Girlpool spends most of Powerplant looking outward, not inward – another inversion. They build their observations in the hope of articulating conflicted internal life. On the quiet-loud-quiet “Corner Store”, they get lost among the objects of the store, musing, “I get stuck on the things I see,” which is as good a bodega allegory for the pain of getting older as you’ll ever hear. On “Soup”, a song which starts with someone throwing out soup and mulling over the great weight of the world, Tucker and Tividad bite hard on the lyric “Come over to my place, I’ll help you find your fix / You have lots of potential, can you feel it?” It’s a wry moment, perhaps even a self-conscious one for a band who began as teenagers, where the song’s protagonist feels trapped between a current and future self. Like the moth and the dress, they suggest that youth could best be understood by its passing, that growing up could best be understood by its sense of implacable loss.
This, politely, is a delightful nowhere. On Powerplant closer, “Static Somewhere”, Tucker and Tividad sing, “Tell me you are here/ I hope I’ll find you static somewhere,” articulating the here and nowhere inversion appearing with such frequency on the album. Not old and not young, not well-known and not obscure, a duo without and now with drums, Girlpool can only broadcast from the places that aren’t exactly places. Could consciousness be derived from simply substantiating the world around oneself? Could the emptiness of the self be offset by the fullness of the world? There’s power in absence, if you learn to see it. Stuck, watching, Girlpool now find energy from where and what they are not.
Essential Tracks: “123”, “It Gets More Blue”, and “Static Somewhere”