Girlpool‘s latest record finds the duo drifting through several iterations of low-key indie pop music. There are songs infused with electronic noises, acoustic folk, and songs that recall both 1990s and 2000s rock. Harmony Tividad and Avery Tucker are clearly writing separately these days, often displaying very different lyrical points of view. The completed tracks, though, dovetail in interesting ways.
Take Forgiveness‘ opening two tracks. Tividad’s “Nothing Gives Me Pleasure” starts the record with harsh, glitchy, electronic percussion sounds. After a few seconds, she begins singing, softly and intimately, with warm electric piano-style chords accompanying her while the glitchy percussion continues. Layers of vocal harmony flit in and out while she sings nakedly confessional lyrics. She begins with, “Do you even want me if I / Even have to ask? / Break it to me gently / With your fingers up my ass.” The refrain is sad and striking: “Nothing gives me pleasure like the things I know you won’t say.” It’s a portrait of a deeply troubled relationship, where Trinidad seems to know things aren’t healthy but is getting enough from it to keep it going.
After the second chorus, the song opens up, expanding its palette of both electronic and organic sounds. Traditional drums come in, electric guitar shows up, and the hook seems a little happier the final two times. But the song’s actual lyrics are finished by the time the track brightens, which seems significant.
Comparatively, Tucker’s “Lie Love Lullaby” also begins with electronic sounds, albeit not as harsh. His singing is just as soft and inviting as Tividad’s, with similarly rough lyrics. “Twist me over the sink / Knock out my envy, let it go.” Musically, the song hits a little harder, with dark bass and slow dance beats. Lyrically, though, it falls flat. At best, the phrase “Lie Love Lullaby” is awkward alliteration, and Tucker relies on it like it’s a giant hook. He even attempts to blame his romantic partner in the chorus for not knowing what it means. “She drives me crazy when she sings a lie love lullaby / Tease me in a sin too tight / What’s a lie love lullaby? / When we sing it every night.” This is another problematic relationship song, but the phrase “Lie Love Lullaby” is so aurally annoying that it undermines the track’s more successful aspects.
Tucker is far more successful working in other genres on Forgiveness, most notably acoustic guitar ballads. Both “Violet” and “See Me Now” are hushed, heartfelt songs centered on gentle but effective guitar chords and his quietly emotional delivery. “See Me Now” reflects on his journey as a transgender man. “What I’m worth / It goes up every night / I get paid with her eyes / Does my baby know I’m not that right?” is emotionally affirming while still betraying a lack of self-confidence. Later, the lines, “I was young for a girl / I was tough / Now I’m figuring out / How you see me now,” approach the situation head-on. Tividad’s sporadic harmonies add a layer of sweetness to the track and keep it from getting maudlin.
“See Me Now” is essentially a folk song, but “Violet” owes much more to the alt-rock ballads of the 1990s. It begins quietly, with just Tucker and an acoustic guitar. It’s more of a lyrical narrative focusing on the day-to-day minutiae of life with the titular character. Trinidad joins on harmonies near the end of the first verse, and the instrumentation gradually expands. Subtle synths come in for the second verse, then piano chords, and eventually drums, bass, and electric guitar build the song into a power ballad. This is not a new trick, but the songwriting is strong here, making the arrangement work despite its familiarity.
Tividad also hits with a pair of quieter tracks. “Junkie” pulses with muted drum hits, clave clicks, and layers of electric piano. This interesting instrumentation drifts from chilly-sounding to warm depending on the vocal melody. Tividad sings at the very top of her range, often repeating the phrase, “I’m a junkie for you.” It’s another somewhat twisted love song, but her dogged insistence on keeping her voice restrained again brings a welcome intimacy to the track.
Album closer “Love333” gets a lot of mileage from extended organ chords and simple piano accompaniment. The song relies heavily on the refrain, “I was looking at something that looked just like love”, but it’s repeated as a mantra, which makes it work. It only has two verses, with Tividad on the first and Tucker on the second. It’s a pleasant surprise, though, as it’s the only time on the album where the pair sing lead vocals on the same track.
As for more upbeat material, listeners are nearly out of luck. Tividad’s “Afterlife” pulses with thumping drums and bass and moments of crunchy guitar. It’s a solid song, although maybe a little too indebted sonically to early 2000s rockers Evanescence. Tividad doesn’t quite have the vocal power to pull off a convincing Amy Lee impression. The deceptively named “Country Star” is essentially Tucker’s take on early 1980s goth rock. It’s mid-tempo, with ominous bass, a pinging synth riff, and occasional swooping guitars.
The rest of the record is gentler musically, without quite the emotional heft of some of the softest tracks. Tividad’s “Faultline” lopes along with a cowboy shuffle but struggles to stand out otherwise. Her “Butterfly Bulletholes” fares a bit better, with a sparse arrangement that again highlights her vocals. It also has a lyrical narrative that seems personal, which helps focus the listener’s attention.
Tucker’s “Dragging My Life Into a Dream” is a rock-solid approximation of 1970s AM radio pop. Bright, jangly guitars share space with close two-part harmonies, and it’s a relative ray of musical sunshine. It also sticks out because its tone doesn’t fit with the relatively dark mood of the album. “Light Up Later” might be the oddest song on Forgiveness. An a cappella opening features Tucker harmonizing with himself, then a variety of synth sounds come in over a simple drumbeat. Tucker’s tone is so clipped and overwrought when the vocals come back in that the lyrics are nearly impossible to decipher. He returns to the opening verses after that, and the song ends with a guitar solo. It’s a musically striking couple of minutes, but much like “Dragging My Life”, it’s a bit of tonal strangeness in an otherwise pretty cohesive record.
Forgiveness is a mixed bag stylistically and qualitatively. It feels close to being a major creative success, but a few dodgy songs keep it from getting there. The solid tracks outweigh the mediocre ones, though. Tucker’s acoustic ballads and Tiviidad’s more intimate songs are excellent. Girlpool’s Forgiveness is ultimately a nimble record where the lesser tracks mostly breeze by while the good stuff stays with you.