Once you pierce the surface, something weirder and more otherworldly awaits.
It’s doubtful that many will mention them in the same breath, but Girlpool’s sophomore album, Powerplant, shares more than a release date with the new Perfume Genius record. No Shape, Seattle singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas’ fourth album as Perfume Genius, is steeped in the tradition of fairy tales: his songs profess of eternal love, explore twisted realities and revel in thorny emotional truths. The album’s songs and associated imagery unfold like dark fables, and the entire enterprise has a grandiose theatricality about it that suggests a very gay, very upsetting retread of Brothers Grimm.
While its sonic ambitions are smaller, Powerplant is also operating in the key of fair ytale. A cursory listen places it much closer to Palehound or Waxahatchee in the world of Slightly Grungy Indie Lo-Fi, but once you pierce the surface, something weirder and more otherworldly awaits. This has a lot to do with the way Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad’s voices intertwine. Their eerie harmonies sound like Kimya Dawson filtered through a cursed amulet: inviting, unsettling and slightly familiar all at once. The music beneath and around them remains in the Palehound/Waxahatchee universe, but the record features more drums and general ruckus than their lovely debut Before the World Was Big.
The lyrics, too, often read like nursery rhymes that lend Powerplant a childish, elemental feel. “One, two, three/ Will you list it off for me,” the pair intones on opener “123” with the disposition of a ghost calling Double Dutch; “The chase is as trite as a story I stage/ A projection I write in a book on a page,” they lilt with a Dr. Seuss cadence on whip-smart highlight “It Gets More Blue.” On No Shape, Hadreas weaves fantasy tropes throughout to create a tapestry of human beings at our thorniest. Here, Girlpool tell us fairytales to lull us to sleep before bludgeoning us over the head—it’s a standard case of bait-and-switch.
At every turn, it seems that Tucker and Tividad are hypnotically wrapping us around their finger only to yank the rug from under us at the last second. They begin “Corner Store” with a wispy vocal line before the feedback kicks in and they slather on a thick layer of fuzz. They make songs that sound like they’re emanating from an antique music box but tackle relationships with startling nuance.
The songs can be opaque, and thus, pinning down what it all means becomes a bit of a challenge. That hardly hinders the enjoyment, but it does keep Powerplant from connecting on every level. It forces listeners to bring their own experiences and interpretations to Girlpool’s often-impressionistic stories, which can be immensely powerful, but it can also become easy to lose the thread when it comes to parsing the musicians’ intentions. In this sense, they’ve strayed from the more overtly political moments on Before the World Was Big. Their voices are as sweet and frayed and enticing as ever, but their words require slightly more work than we’ve come to expect from this group.
This runs directly counter to the music, which is more structured, poppy and easy to grab hold of. “Kiss and Burn,” in particular, is a hooky stomper, and while its tempos are varied enough to make it feel longer, the album breezes by at only 28 total minutes. The impression it leaves may not last forever, but it’s difficult to shake nonetheless. Like the best fairytales, it seduces you while making you wonder whether you should plunge further in. It may not sport the transcendence that Perfume Genius nails on No Shape, but it leaves the listener in a different place than it found them, disoriented, bewildered and equipped with an odd sense of comfort.