In general I think it’s a little uncouth to acknowledge reviews—I feel like it makes the music industry’s snake-and-tail buffet a little too obvious to bear. However, I found Girlpool bassist Harmony Tividad’s review of the new record by my band, Ought, so charming and disarming, so much like how I feel when I’ve drunk too much coffee and suddenly really love music, so unconcerned with adding to numerical consensus opinion, that I felt compelled to respond, to attend to Girlpool’s record, 2017’s Powerplant, with as much attention and enthusiasm as she did to ours, to aim at generative (rather than qualitative) writing. I’m on my third big cup of the day and we’re driving to Pittsburgh in the rain.
I wonder if Tividad and guitarist Cleo Tucker record their vocals at the same time in the same room. I would guess they probably do—it strikes me as far too difficult not to, to have to reverse-engineer the way both of their voices bend towards an absent center. Two voices singing in unison—muscles attempting to vibrate at the same frequency—create a slight phasing effect, cancelling out some frequencies and amplifying others, pushing the sound to the corners of my headphones. We bear witness to an extreme intimacy: to write lyrics and share them with your friend, to sing them together at the same time, to sing (often) about a “you” that is at the same time Tucker or Tividad’s original “you,” their shared “you,” me, anyone else listening to them, and also all of us. I feel my own center phasing a little bit, and I realize I feel that all the time.
Pools are reflective surfaces: They appear blue, but on closer inspection, are clear, and shiny, and colorful, and also you. “At the bottom of the swimming pool, I watched the white winter light spangle the cloudy blue and I knew together they made God,” Maggie Nelson writes in Bluets. “It’s a lot about the gray,” Tucker said in an interview, referring to Powerplant. Gray is an “in-between,” a state of non-being, like the feeling of trying to live somewhere when you really live in a van. It’s still raining, and we’re still driving to Pittsburgh.
On “It Gets More Blue,” it gets either better or worse, I’m not sure. It gets “more”—that’s as much as I’m sure of. “We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it,” writes Nelson, quoting Goethe. Girlpool’s lyrics are in front of and behind me, they are very small and very big things. The video for this song looks and feels like an Eric Rohmer movie, with Tividad and Tucker as the inevitably tragic central pair. Rohmer’s characters, too, are very blue, always explaining very big things with very small words, resorting to sighs and gestures and tiny touches. They feel more than is comfortable; they are exhausted and thrilled by the world’s smallness and expansiveness. I think Rohmer’s characters would like Girlpool; would find something familiar, consonant, and heartening in it.
This record feels like a homage to Built to Spill, but also like something that’s actually built to spill, ready to collapse outwards and inwards, a cup of clear water filled right above the brim. I remember being taught as a child how you can, if you’re careful, pour more water into a cup than the cup itself can hold and have it stay there, suspended by surface tension and what seemed like magic.
When songs fade out, I always imagine that they keep going forever. There’s a full 20 seconds of fadeout in “Your Heart,” just four songs into the record, which to me means it’s playing in the background throughout the whole rest of the record. I heard, “Your heart is heart,” the first time I listened, which I love—I think actually it’s “your heart is high,” but I don’t want to look it up. I was talking last night about how pleasing it can be when a group of people try to Socratic-method their way towards an empirical fact that no one actually knows—everyone trying to bring their critical thinking to bear to figure out the population of Glasgow or the distance from the Earth to the moon, knowing full well that there’s no way you can be surer at the end of the conversation than the beginning.
On “Fast Dust,” Tucker and Tividad sing “I want to make fast dust / Something I’ve never thought of.” That line excites me immensely. How do you make something you’ve never thought of? I am almost annoyed by how clearly they articulate both my creative desire and largest insecurity—I only really want to make things I haven’t thought of, things I don’t really have the language to describe until they’re made. Girlpool open their record by addressing someone who’s feeling “sorry about the load,” but it feels like a collective load, a load that the singers and the song’s “you” were meant to (are still meant to?) shoulder together.
LUST FOR LIFE
I found one interview where Tucker and Tividad cite Lana Del Rey as their most important influence. As a fan, I find it tiring how often conversations about Lana Del Rey center around how much of her specifically feminine listlessness—her blue mood—is a “knowing” performance. As if you need an excuse, as if her performance is only impressive if it’s a sincere impersonation of vacancy (as opposed to willingly inhabiting vacancy itself). She is in a double bind: embrace the artifice of her character, and she is labelled as manipulative and insincere; advocate for her own sincerity, and she is forced to own the pejorative adjective consequences: vacant, absent, tired, bored, grey.1
We recently worked with an excellent monitor tech (someone who specializes in the sound musicians hear onstage, as opposed to the sound the audience hears). He had an uncanny ability to intuit the subtle differences between the mixes the members of our band need to play their roles effectively. He had just come off a brief stint doing monitors for LDR, and—naturally—we wanted to know what her mix was like, what she hears in her acoustically isolated earpieces while the band is playing. Grinning, he revealed that her mix is “Batcave karaoke”: her vocal, mostly alone, drowned in a cavernous reverb. I was, of course, thrilled by this.
You could take this as evidence for either position: Either she is so absent, vacant, so simultaneously shy and vain that she can only bear to hear her own voice as if it is bouncing off the Grand Canyon, or she is a savvy operator who understands the parameters of her character so clearly that of course her mix is just her at the bottom of an empty pool, the band and the audience fading into the muted ending of a long reverb tail.
The reason the question annoys me is because, like any great artist—like Girlpool—the answer has to be both and neither. Quantum physicists have successfully placed atoms in multiple states at the same time (which they call “cat states,” after Schrödinger), a fact that we all seem to be relatively cool with, even in the absence of evidence that you or I could understand (the consequences are more metaphoric than scientific). Lana Del Rey charms me because she is a very good performer: she takes a sincerely felt emotional state and transforms it into a shareable experience, one that she can replicate night after night. She knows and she doesn’t know; I’m not sure why we need anything else. “Yeah, I’m both!” Drake shouts, giving the game away.
In Los Angeles, Connie, my partner’s dumb but affectionate cat, sits firmly on my chest and wakes me by impatiently kneading my neck. The sun warms me to consciousness and for a minute I am both awake and asleep, in my own cat state.
The city is so big and lonely that it’s easier to think about it as a collection of safe harbors, people who you could say hello to if you needed to. Most of the time, I see myself as a vector on a map, my car whizzing around, blind to everyone else and their cars and their harbors. Los Angeles is—still—the largest radio market in the world, I think at least partly because it functions as a singularly communal space. “High rise, high / and sinks.” Sometimes, Girlpool songs feel to me like love letters from one car to another.
I’ve noticed that people I meet who I feel the most kinship with—people to whom I feel quietly drawn, as though by magnets—tend to refer to the most recent good thing they’ve experienced (films, books, music), as “the best ______ I’ve ever seen.” Conversely, I can tell I’m going to have friction with somebody when they are irritated by this verbal tic, who see it as naïveté or disingenuousness, who equate their in-the-moment objectivity to wisdom (I am being ungenerous here).
I have only met Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker briefly, but I feel like they might be the former: people who feel everything they see or read or hear as a coming-to-bear of everything else they’ve seen or read or heard, as if each new thing is a tiny puzzle piece that makes all the other things make a little more sense. In that sense: Powerplant is my favorite record.
1. This is all aside from the obvious: that a woman is never given sincere credit for her own performance of vapidity; there must be someone more knowing pulling the strings. All this about a woman who called her newest album Lust for Life; who has a song called “Summer Bummer”—she’s looking straight into the camera and giving us a big ol’ wink. In Todd Haynes’ lesbian dramas, men are big wet socks, bumbling, disproportionate lunks who have to be managed and coddled lest they bump into the furniture or set something on fire. I think about this a lot.