What’s your favorite Girlpool song? Put a better way: Which is your favorite version of Girlpool? The Los Angeles duo of Avery Tucker and Harmony Tividad have undergone profound transformation, even in just shy of a decade as a band, from the wide-eyed, harmony-heavy folk-punk of their early records to the effortlessly lush indie rock and pop sounds of their ANTI- output. For Tucker, the same is true on a deeply personal level: The vocalist and guitarist came out as trans in 2017, which affected not only his singing voice, but also his identity as a member of the band.
Navigating these changes in both art and life wasn’t easy for Girlpool. Balancing their past and present sounds was something they “talked about every day, probably about every song” (as the duo told Rolling Stone) while recording their most recent record, Forgiveness, released earlier this year. And for Tucker, that effort meant not only bridging the gap between two different sounds, but also between two different selves.
“I can look back on my history and see my past self as a geography that I feel honored to have had access to. Being conditioned as a woman let me in on experiences I could never have truly understood as a cis man,” Tucker wrote in a 2020 Them essay. “Although I experience great pain and confusion around this truth, I know the discomfort coexists with my accepting that it has brought me a bounty of self-knowledge. I honor my own path and I’m learning to really love it.”
If there’s one quality that has defined Girlpool over the years, it’s courage—the courage necessary to follow their shared path wherever it leads. “There’s no way to know where Girlpool are going,” Eric Bennett wrote of Forgiveness for Paste. “There never has been, and if they have it their way, there never will be.” That held true to the end: The band unexpectedly announced their breakup in late August, tweeting later that day, “It’s been a beautiful nine years ~ new things in store for both of us.”
With Girlpool’s run now coming to an end, as their final tour is currently ongoing, Paste is looking back on their output and celebrating Tucker and Tividad’s journey. Here are our picks for their 10 best tracks.
What Chaos Is Imaginary
standout “Hire” is a tough act to have to follow on the tracklist, but “Pretty” pulls it off—a particularly impressive feat, given that Tividad first wrote and recorded it when she was just starting out as a songwriter at “16 or 17.” The track succeeds not only as a hooky and dynamic indie-rock strummer, but also as a distillation of young heartbreak, capturing the way losing your first love can feel like losing the very concept of love itself, though it’s often later revealed to be a blessing in disguise. Tividad spends its jangly verses adrift and down on herself (“I hate the way I feel confused / Like I’ll always be a part of you”), her AABB rhymes reinforcing these raw, youthful feelings, but she breaks out of that scheme and gains a more hopeful perspective in its crashing choruses, harmonizing with Tucker, “You were such an idol / Yeah, you were the whole world / Now you see you look pretty broken / Pretty broken.”
The two-and-a-half-minute title track from the band’s beloved full-length debut Before the World Was Big is textbook early Girlpool. A teenaged Tucker and Tividad interlock their rudimentary guitar and bass lines, adjoining their voices to tell an imaginative and honest coming-of-age tale. The song evokes school days and growing pains, its narrator digging in their heels while change comes to their internal and external worlds alike. There is a guileless vulnerability to the band’s Before the World era, reflected in both its forthright songwriting and bare-bones instrumentation, that feels pure and precious, and Girlpool spend this track pining for it, even before they’ve truly left it: “I just miss how it felt standing next to you / Wearing matching dresses before the world was big.” Tucker and Tividad stagger their harmonies as the song builds to its climax, as if to underscore their shared yearning for simpler times.
It’s fitting this song and “Before the World Was Big” are neighbors: Taken together, they show that, while the more superficial circumstances of our lives are always changing, our innermost feelings tend to stay the same. The Tucker-led third single from Forgiveness finds Girlpool remaining open about the pain of change, as well as the longing for days gone by it inspires. Instrumentally, though, the two tracks could hardly be more different. “Dragging My Life into a Dream” is lush and layered, with restrained strings and Tividad’s perfectly placed backing vocals acting in service of the intimate singer/songwriter concept at its center. As we wrote upon the track’s release, “Over gentle guitar strums, Tucker sings about an ex he’s surprised to find himself missing so much (‘How did I get to wishing for you?’), yearning not only for that person, but also for the person he was when they were together: ‘Would you drag your life back into mine right now? (I want my innocence back.)’” The result is a song as fit for its house party in the hills as it is the quiet, longing hours after.
Girlpool’s penultimate Powerplant cut is one of the foremost examples of what their 2017 ANTI- debut does so well, bridging the gap between Before the World’s sing-songy simplicity and the more complex sonics and songwriting of their later output. The duo deliver a hooky serenade to someone they care about, who only has eyes for someone they can’t trust (“The city is clouds / You make him the sun / You wanted that poison / And bit the gun”), warning this person not to get their heart broken while memorably offering up their own: “The nihilist tells you / That nothing is true / I said ‘I faked global warming / Just to get close to you.’” Tucker and Tividad’s dynamic pop-rock instrumentation, drums, organ, piano and all, serves as the bracing accompaniment to their thoughtful, lovesick lyricism and signature vocal harmonies, which pair with heavy, distorted guitars and thrumming bass in the song’s soaring choruses. Every struck set of strings feels like your own heart beating even as you fear it will overflow.
What Chaos Is Imaginary hits its stride on “Hire,” featuring one of the best vocal performances in the band’s catalog. Tucker, having begun his gender flow after the release of Powerplant, was adjusting to his new vocal range while recording the band’s third album—”I’m still getting used to it, but I think that the more I sing, the better I feel about it. The more I sing, the more I sing, the more I sing,” he told Them—and that sense of spreading one’s wings bleeds into the song itself. Quietly confident electric guitar and drums accompany Tucker as he unfurls his new voice, singing about anticipation (“Will I make the matinée with my newest life and be that bright time?”) and the hope of acceptance (“Are you gonna hire me?”), yet finding a fragile peace in the uncertainty along the way (“Purgatory, please me,” he and Tividad harmonize). His tenor vocal soars in the chorus-less track’s last verse, as he evokes a sense of restless retrospect, still tinged with a sense of humor: “I can’t let live be, I’m high scoring memory / Just to look at quiet history.” The track’s hard-rocking climax is one of an underrated album’s most satisfying moments.
The final song of Girlpool’s Powerplant era feels, fittingly, like the duo are taking in the view from a precipice, straining to see past even the horizon. It’s the closest the band ever came to a Sonic Youth-esque noise jam, with Miles Wintner’s rolling drumbeat serving as the spine of a slow-to-set-up rocker that, when it finally pays off, does so like a slot machine. There’s an undeniable confidence to the track, with its gradual build and searching lyricism—the latter aspect is especially impressive, as Tucker and Tividad’s mirrored vocals vacillate between downcast (“They call me wonderful, what a joke,” “But I’ll give you all the pills / A fucked up business deal”) and hopeful (“I know I’ll find you / Static somewhere”). But what pervades it most is a sense of wonder, a testament to Girlpool safeguarding their youthful spark. When Tucker and Tividad’s voices split apart on “I wonder what it’s like to sit and watch the sunrise,” and the duo’s fuzzed-out electric guitars erupt across the mix, it feels like finding what—or who—the song was searching for all along. And the roving vocalizations, riffs and synths that follow feel like whatever lies beyond.
One of the best songs on Girlpool’s breakout debut Before the World, “Chinatown” has more memorable lyrics than many entire albums: “Everyone’s a prophet when they don’t know what to say”; “I’m still looking for sureness in the way I say my name / I am nervous for tomorrow and today”; “Cut my hair when I’m feeling like I don’t have a place / And the mirror’s reflection pushes me further away / If I loved myself, would I take it the wrong way?”; “Do you feel restless when you realize you’re alive?” It’s also one of the duo’s most impressive stripped-down, pre-Powerplant instrumentals. Arhythmic acoustic guitar strums open the track and continue just beneath its surface, like ambient anxiety casting a pall of uncertainty over everyday life. But Tucker and Tividad have each other to lean on, trading lyrics, punctuating verses in unison, and harmonizing through the sing-song hooks of its choruses. Their guitar and bass playing is almost percussive, a heartbeat amid all those worries, not slowing or speeding, but remaining steady.
The enchanting centerpiece of Forgiveness, the Tividad-led “Faultline” is unlike any other Girlpool song. Bennett singled the track out as a highlight of the album in their review: “The immaculate ‘Faultline’ is the closest Girlpool have ever drifted to Lana Del Rey-style balladry. Lilting piano and a lush string section make Tividad sound like she’s been making this kind of music for decades. It’s an experiment for the group, but you’d never know.” Adding to the song’s golden-hour Americana, too, are keening pedal steel and an ambling snare backbeat. Its lyrics, set against the backdrop of L.A.’s beautiful oblivion (“Every week keeps slipping by / In this imitation paradise”), dance on the “Faultline” between pleasure and pain—”I loved you so traumatically that I / Can barely lift the world you left for me,” Tividad and Tucker harmonize in its final fluttering chorus. Their high/low vocals underscore the contrasts that not only litter “Faultline,” but also create the inescapable tensions that, in turn, make life what it is.
The dream of Girlpool will always be alive in “Ideal World.” Before the World’s opener is “doing more with less” made manifest—most of it is just Tucker and Tividad’s voices over a few alternating guitar and bass notes. It’s the kind of song that makes you want to write songs yourself, because it shows you what kind of multitudes even the most uncomplicated music can contain. “I thought I’d found myself today / No one’s noticed things are okay,” Girlpool harmonize, speaking in terms anyone can understand, but that no one can quite define. Even in the song’s dream logic-driven world, they find happiness in self-expression, and in each other: “I feel safest in knowing that I am true / When I look in your eyes, the idea of you,” they call and respond between staccato guitar plucks. The track branches out as it builds to its finish, with electric riffs both spacey and skronked out—because Girlpool never fell into the trap at the center of this song: “Tranquilize me with your ideal world.” They knew they had to stay wide awake to build one of their own.
Released in spring 2017 upon Girlpool’s signing to ANTI-, lead Powerplant track “123” had a heavy burden of expectation to shoulder. Before the World had earned them superlatives like “the Saviors of Rock Music” and the genre’s future, and many of their newfound fans feared their impending shift to a full-band sound would rob Girlpool’s music of its singular power. “123” stares those worries down, then detonates them—it’s the duo’s best song to that point or any other, a perfect distillation of everything they did so well. The 50-second mark hits like the band’s Big Bang, the moment their tightly packed potential energy exploded outward in every direction. It’s the sound of growing up, clutching tightly to your hopes and fending off your fears. Tucker and Tividad’s unified vocals convey lyrics you could spend hours untangling, yet they land with an emotional force that’s overwhelmingly immediate. “123” is Girlpool in their purest form, persisting through change and creating because it’s what they do.
Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.
Revisit Girlpool’s 2021 Paste session below.