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The new Sophie album stands as the year’s most adoring ode to sonic extremes. The Scottish producer’s bewilderingly titled Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, out since June, gleefully fuses harsh and pretty, tender and aggressive. Giant electronic squelches, digital mosquito whines, and percussion effects fractured into a million tiny blades share space with popping balloons, plastic creaks, and broken glass, sweetened by soft melodies and soprano vocals and a corresponding air of vulnerable fragility. The resulting emotional intensity rivets; plasticity is the quickest way to the heart.
Sophie initially surfaced about five years ago as a PC Music affiliate, releasing peppy novelty singles in line with that label’s notoriously arch, plastic, cartoonish style of absurdist technopop. She broke through as an electronic producer in 2015, when her credits for pop singles by Madonna and Charli XCX coincided with the release of her own singles compilation, the tight, dinky, flawless Product. Several years of further production credits followed, including many more Charli XCX songs and several highlights on Vince Staples’s Big Fish Theory, the rare mainstream rap album whose cold metallic surface glimmers as brightly as Sophie’s own.
Sophie’s earlier work may have matched the sugary crunch of PC Music’s squeaky puerility exactly — her debut single “Bipp,” bouncing mechanically over chirpy synth stabs whose precisely timed and tangibly textured forward propulsion compensated for the absence of a drum track, captures that style — but that moment has cooled. The label’s sudden outpouring of visionary electropop throughout 2014 and 2015, its embrace of commodity fetishism and insistence that ironic distancing devices deepen rather than dissolve a pop thrill, have devolved into clunky anthemic attempts at spiritual uplift, as the transition from their definitive PC Music Volume 1 collection to the inflated Volume 2 illustrated — a collection largely indistinguishable from the megaballads currently favored in commercial EDM.
Sophie, meanwhile, has emerged independently as a distinct artist, and she’s significantly tweaked her sound in the three years since last she released music under her own name. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides is denser, murkier, more overwhelming, blurring the sonic lines and letting loose the feelings that were once boxed in.
The most striking difference between the new album and her previous work is scale. Product cultivated a cutesy smallness, as if the songs were chintzy electronic wind-up toys; Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides features longer songs, larger and more whomping hooks, wider and chillier aural spaces, a sweeping emotionalism. Her basic trick, the shock of discovering tenderness in a theoretically mechanical context, persists, but on Product the tenderness is a function of miniaturism, of kindly electronic sprites singing perky tunelets in an ironic commercial context.
Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides is grander within the same technopop style, aiming for a dizzier and more solemn sense of romantic rapture; the synthesizers throb with wild longing and a quasi-orchestral majesty. It’s also less neat and less pop; this codes as an experimental dance album, with the squeaky hooks and harmonies swallowed by the relentless jaggedy squelch.
“Is It Cold in the Water?” encapsulates the many ingredients in her synthesis: high, squiggly, frantic keyboard chords race around in anguish as lower bass thumps provide a bedrock, and guest singer Cecile Believe moans a series of distressed admissions: “I’m freezing/I’m burning”, and so on, drawing out the vowels, returning over and over to ask: “is it cold in the water?” The chaotic keyboard doodles generally follow a conventionally poignant chord progression while abrasive amelodic agitation simulates a stormy sea, a roiling expanse of waves and currents and raw feeling, with wind and rain spattering against the electronic surface, as the singer prepares to dive.
“Ponyboy” and “Faceshopping” are harsher: sludge-coated slabs of synthesizer clobber each other, adorned with the sounds of crinkled aluminum and stretched latex. Comically high- and low-pitched vocals squeal and/or growl at each other. Horrible metallic noises creak and sway, drawn inevitably forward by the album’s sweeping momentum.
Although Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides’s lyrics are fairly minimal — looped catchphrases, repeated in minor, if surreal, variations, warped through perplexingly distorted vocal filters — the snippets that do emerge focus rather conspicuously on the general theme of razing and reconstructing a self. Given Sophie’s cultivated anonymity before the current album’s release, coupled with her decision to show her face for the first time in the music video for “It’s Okay to Cry” — and subsequently on the album cover — (until recently, most of the music press assumed she was a man), these abbreviated lyrics resonate.
“Faceshopping” and “Infatuation” dwell on projection and unknowability; both songs suggest a state of flux. “Immaterial” soars, an instant dance banger keyed to the upward bounce of an ebulliently rubbery keyboard riff and thwacky drums, as Cecile Believe sings the praises of “Immaterial girls/immaterial boys” before wondering, “Without my legs or my hair/without my genes or my blood/with no name and with no type of story/where do I live/tell me where do I exist?”
The answer, of course, is in the pounding beat and the bubbly hook. Sophie is an artist who finds definition in physical sound — in music’s tangible, intangible, abstract yet undeniably material presence. It can’t be touched or seen, but you can hear it; it’s there. That Sophie’s diverse textures often mimic real sounds — exploding balloons, popping soda cans, ripped plastic, crumped metal — suggests a need for grounding, as if she and the music would otherwise dissipate, but also liberation in the ambiguity of representation.
For “Immaterial” to celebrate the fluidity of persona (“I could be anything I want”) over such a palpably textured and discrete riff is a paradox that resolves itself — the instability of identity finds a balancing force in the musical substance; this is the kind of material she’s affirming. From upbeat dancefloor bliss to the epic slow burner and the rougher catharsis of machines scraped together, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides’s grand arc swings through a billion little moments of rapture because the album’s many electronic sounds are so beautiful, so ugly, so extreme, and the emotions follow. When an array of distorted voices chant the title of the closing number, “Whole New World,” over thrashing industrial percussion, she’s imagining a freely fluctuating realm where notions of identity and gender collapse, but she’s also imagining the utopia of infinite assorted sounds her album simulates.
The opening track and lead single “It’s Okay to Cry” is the only song on the album where Sophie herself sings. It’s a sensitive ballad, glittering over a magnificently feelsy keyboard arpeggio spiraling ever upward. In her tenderest voice, she encourages a second-person listener, possibly herself, to stop hiding, start feeling things, and be open. She whispers the song’s title over and over, as if willing herself to believe. Right at the end, the previously quiet song explodes; the drums crack and the synths wail, blowing the whispered chorus up to enormous size as an altered high-pitched voice wails the refrain — “It’s okay to cry!” A violent tremor shudders through the song’s center, and then, just as suddenly, everything is still. The song simultaneously opens a space for expressionist outpouring and free self-determination; your feelings could be anything you want. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides crackles with the thrill of endless becoming, the tenderness that often correlates with distance, and the sound effects that immortalize Sophie in the aural world.