Last month, when Waxahatchee rolled through town, I was just as excited to watch opener Girlpool as I was to see Katie Crutchfield play "Under a Rock" live. After releasing their self-titled EP via Wichita last fall, Girlpool decamped from their native Los Angeles and moved to Philadelphia—where they worked on their debut album with Kyle Gilbride of Swearin'. Turns out, nothing will make you come to terms with the small amount of space you inhabit in this world like a 3,000-mile move. The title track is a reflection on the ways adult responsibilities have begun to encroach on childish whimsy: "I just miss how it felt standing next to you/Wearing matching dresses before the world was big." When you're young, your personal experience seems like an absolute. But this record is about how it feels when you reach the overarching epiphany of adulthood: You are not the center of the universe. Before the World Was Big finds guitarist Cleo Tucker and bassist Harmony Tividad mourning the lost innocence and self-assuredness that accompany youth.
Percussionless duos aren't unheard of, but Girlpool have strong reasons for not wanting a drummer in the band. "The absence of drums adds a focus to the lyricism," Tividad told Philadelphia's City Paper earlier this year. "We really put a lot of care into saying words that are true to us, and the absence of drums lets people see that and focus on them as well." The debut album finds them engaging with a quieter sound and softer harmonies than they did on their debut EP. They're stretching the range of their technique beyond the high-pitched wails that got them noticed, a decision well-suited to the growing maturity of their subject matter. Before the World Was Big is less preoccupied with teenage hormones and more concerned with a sense of self-worth. "Crowded Stranger" and "Emily" tackle the anxiety over the changing nature of friendships and the monotony of dealing with other people's disappointing actions. "Pretty" addresses regret over a missed romantic opportunity—but more for the loss of potential intimacy it represented than for the sexual gratification it might have offered. (Although, on occasion, I miss the brash, sexual humor of earlier songs like "Slutmouth" and "American Beauty.")
The track I kept returning to is "Dear Nora"—whose title is a reference to Katy Davidson's Portland-based band from the late 1990s. It begins and ends with the lyrics "There's a lot that's changed this year/I'm still thinking about swimming in Seattle." Tucker and Tividad have a subtle knack for setting scenes with brief description, drawing attention to key offbeat details—a swim, a song on the radio, switching drivers "in the middle of the highway." But it's the slow, sad draw of their voices, and the repetition of the song's opening lyrics, that convey longing. However, they're careful not to overstate their romanticized nostalgia for this road trip, and it's this keen sense of perception that keeps the music from venturing into syrupy sweet or naive territory.
Ultimately, I kept comparing a line from "Chinatown" ("I'm still looking for sureness in the way I say my name") to one in the track "Cherry Picking" ("The truth is that I am working for myself and only me"). Tucker and Tividad are still figuring out how to move through the world with grace and self-possession, so it makes perfect sense to have two such contrary statements exist back-to-back on the record. Growing up is a continued reckoning with doubt and loss, but hopefully you stumble across a sense of independence in the process. It helps if you can make some kick-ass music while doing so.