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Girlpool and Let's Eat Grandma explore the inherent grief of growing up

Both Girlpool and Let's Eat Grandma make music that pushes against the boundaries of indie rock and pop.
Alexis Gross/El Hardwick
Courtesy of the artist
Both Girlpool and Let's Eat Grandma make music that pushes against the boundaries of indie rock and pop.

Despite Let's Eat Grandma and Girlpool hailing from opposite corners of the world — the former from the U.K. and the latter from Los Angeles — both groups share similar trajectories. Two creatively partnered duos occupying the same late millennial and early Gen Z age bracket, both Let's Eat Grandma and Girlpool make music that pushes against the boundaries of indie rock and pop, and each has seen its members go through massive life changes in the years since their debut records. And two new albums out from both, Two Ribbons and Forgiveness, respectively, reflect a similar message: a sort of wistful acceptance of the inherent grief that comes with growing older, as both mark the passage of time through a self-reflexive form of maturity.

For Let's Eat Grandma, 2018's stellar I'm All Ears found artists Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton reaching adulthood, on the heels of a similarly acclaimed debut that was written when the duo were in their early teens. But as the two continued to record and tour, they started to grow apart as most childhood friends do. They spent time away from each other, Walton moving to London for some time, and the songs ache with the desire to be understood by anyone in the wake of losing those that do. "Levitation" pleads over a sprightly, '80s-inspired instrumental, "Are you here or somewhere else?" followed by "Watching You Go," a synth-pop track in the vein of Chvrches, anchored by a bittersweet lament for watching someone important in your life fade away, the vocals carried away into a glittery ether.

These are songs that contain double meanings; they're internal exchanges between artists, but also letters to loved ones lost. The split between two lifelong musical partners resulted in the duo writing songs to one another, reminiscing over a friendship that was temporarily severed only to come back together again. But outside of the group, the two were reckoning with external change, as Hollingworth's boyfriend died of Ewing's sarcoma in spring 2019.

The record is divided into two halves, with a clear side A and side B. The first half is shiny, retro-inspired pop music, layered in waves of euphoric synthesizers. But the latter half, after the aptly named ambient breather "Half Light," adopts more acoustic instrumentation. The songs take on a beautifully saccharine tone, reflecting on past bygone experiences with a sense of fitting bereavement. Multiple songs in this back half reference religious imagery; "Strange Conversations" has a prayer-like echo to it, as Hollingworth confesses she's at the altar, on her knees, praying to an unspecified recipient, and "Two Ribbons" closes the album with the cadence of a contemporary worship song.

The album traces a path to maturity, with the youthful flashiness of the first half fading away into more serious, downtempo songwriting. It's a slight pivot away from their last album I'm All Ears, which rested more in what the duo called "experimental sludge pop," working with collaborators like the late producer SOPHIE and being unafraid to write tracks that hovered around the ten minute mark. But the marked difference is that Two Ribbons is, at its core, a grief record. As Hollingworth grieves her lost lover, and Walton the state of their friendship, Two Ribbons grieves both members' lost innocence as they reckon with the consequences of growing up.

Girlpool's Forgiveness is also a grief record, albeit in a slightly different fashion. Since their 2015 debut, Girlpool's music has been steadily changing shape — the twee, Riot Grrrl inspired sound that propelled its previous records is absent on Forgiveness in favor of a darker, more electronic instrumentation. The guitars are still present, but behind synths, pedals and drum machines, particularly on the songs where Avery Tucker takes the lead. The album's "Nothing Gives Me Pleasure" includes auto-tune and breathy vocal chops, "Country Star" features a fuzzy, darkwave sound while the brooding "Light Up Later" starts with a hymnal chorus of layered harmonies.

Forgiveness finishes what 2019's What Chaos Is Imaginary started, giving both Tucker and Harmony Tividad space to continue exploring the slowcore-adjacent territory they've found themselves comfortable in, this time aided by a bleak and even cynical soundscape to back them up. It contains a Depeche Mode sensibility, where the coldness of the instrumentals work to mask the true, candid emotions underneath, as the two singers use their individual discrepancies to their advantage — they play off of one another well enough to create a distinct portrait of each member while still making a cohesive record.

There's a yearning in these songs: "Dragging My Life Into a Dream" begins with a plea for the literal return of Tucker's innocence. Other songs like "Faultline" and "Country Star" are about becoming in touch with the things you need while understanding the things you desire, and this sort of retroactive realization comes to a head in the closer, "Love333," which expresses both a curiosity to understand the circumstances of the past to understand the future: "I don't wanna feel this yet," Tividad sings. "I wonder if there's any truth sometimes."

Personal reflection and growth defines both albums, but in the case of Girlpool it takes a more biting tone. The duo grieve more intangible losses, namely previous versions of themselves and carefully crafted relationships. "See Me Now" has the timbre of an Elliott Smith B-side, with Tucker, who transitioned in 2018, wrestling with the knots of ingrained self-hatred that comes with the experience of always comparing yourself to cisgendered peers. With an album title named Forgiveness, these songs can function as letters of absolution — songs as attempts to reconcile with former presentations of the self, and battling the deep-rooted emotions that follow.

Both records are about surrendering to change; Two Ribbons is about finding the beauty in the world and holding it close to you in times of adversity, and Forgiveness hones in on that adversity to find some meaning within it. The two albums tackle loss through lenses of optimism versus pessimism, both reflecting on unsaid trysts or regret of the past — where one album chooses forgiveness, the other holds a grudge. We all find ourselves inherently tethered to others throughout the good or the bad — connected, as Hollingworth sings, "two ribbons, still woven although we are fraying." These entanglements — to ourselves, to other people — are what make us human, and when those connections become severed, it leaves us scrambling to cobble together some meaning out of the brokenness.

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Reanna Cruz
Reanna Cruz is a news assistant for NPR Music's Alt.Latino.