I don’t even know what “Avant-garde” means
You may not have heard of SOPHIE, but she’s been around for a while. My first exposure to her work was on Charli XCX’s EP, 'Vroom Vroom', which proved exactly what I’d been telling people for a while at that point: Charli XCX is actually pretty good when matched with a talented producer. After that, SOPHIE slipped off my personal radar, until I heard the first single for this album, 'Ponyboy', on the radio one day. The weirdest thing that gets airtime on Triple J hovers around Tame Impala on the patrician-pleb spectrum, so I imagine my first reaction towards Ponyboy was the same as a lot of people’s; “What in the fuck is this?”
But after a while, the song started to grab me, and now here I am, a year later, reviewing SOPHIE’s bafflingly-titled second album 'OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES'; a weird mix of noisy, super-synthetic, avant-garde pop music that I quite like.
I was immediately surprised by the first track on the album, 'It’s Okay To Cry', which eschews SOPHIE’s more industrial sound and goes for something much more "normal". Normal, in this case, refers to a sort of glitzy, emotional, alt-pop ballad more reminiscent of Kieran J Callinan than anything of SOPHIE’s that caught my attention initially. Then, of course, the transition into 'Ponyboy' happened, which can be described as very sudden and a little frightening, kinda like when you’re eight kilometers into a run and you realize that if you run any further you’re going to shit yourself.
Ponyboy' brings me to what I like most about this album, the evocation of a kind of lurking, mechanical aggression in the industrial production of the album. Ponyboy is the best example of this, but the songs 'Whole New World/Pretend World' and 'Faceshopping' offer a very similar, twisted sound. The album is at its best when it’s loud, rhythmic and distorted. This may be a reach, but if you liked the soundtrack to the movie Under the Skin - the one with Scarlet Johansson preying on Scottish men - I imagine this album will feel like just what you’re looking for. The amount of effects on these three tracks never gets overwhelming, and it seems as though SOPHIE has a keen sense on when and when not to sandblast listeners with waves upon waves of noise and distortion. How SOPHIE manages to make tracks as utterly distorted as they are, yet as catchy as they are, is a testament to her talent and what makes her such an interesting pop producer.
Join the Kill Your Stereo community with our FREE weekly newsletter
The song 'Is It Cold In the Water?' is absolutely fantastic. SOPHIE’s production on this song is perfect, the main feature being a synthetic and stunning ¾ beat that creeps up and down in intensity over the course of the song, It sounds like a transcendent plastic orchestra and it’s fucking amazing; like the best possible version of Crystal Castles’ third album. The vocal work is also handled well by Mozart’s Sister, who is, shockingly, a singer from the present, and not actually a badly reanimated Viennese corpse. Her vocals, while being generally repetitive and with few lyrics, really display her talent and add to the song’s numerous climaxes.
Speaking of that, the album overall has very few lyrics, and most lyrics are laid out already as the titles of songs. But, it’d be unfair to the album to describe this as a lack, because the quality of SOPHIE’s production shows that the album doesn’t need a variety of lyrics in order to be as good as it is. 'Is It Cold In the Water?' is as evocative as it needs to be, while also having barely any lyrics to it. The same can also be said for the opening track, which is effective while repeating the same lyrics a lot. My point here being that Rage Against the Machine's 'Killing in the Name' still makes you want to break shit no matter what, so please extend this non-rock album the same credit. Cause it can do just that.
I can’t spend this whole review fawning over the album though, as the quality takes a distinct dip at 'Infatuation'. I understand the “lovey dovey” lyrics, and it having obnoxious vocals that sound like a baby are all significant details to the wider track. (I’d say that the song is maybe suggesting that being infatuated with someone risks infantilising them and yourself in the process, which is an idea that I really fuckin' like.) However, there are probably less annoying ways to convey that message, because that baby voice is some truly annoying shit. Babies, much like these vocals, tend to fall into the categories of either boring or annoying, so I don’t want to be reminded of that. Once the verses containing the baby voices are through, the song ramps up in quality quite a bit, ending powerfully with some somber electronics and an absurd degree of distortion. If this whole piece is a comment on how kids suck, but they get better later in life, this song is Andy Kaufman-levels of genius, but I doubt it.
I’m also not sure how to feel about the second-last song, 'Immaterial'. On one hand, it’s very catchy and fun, but on the other hand, I feel like SOPHIE is screwing with me, because the beat seems deliberately similar to the kind of upbeat Caribbean-infused production that Rihanna has been using for some time now. Much like 'It’s Okay To Cry', this song is another relatively normal dance track that, placed among a bunch of other songs this odd, offers a refreshing change of pace.
Which is a good thing, because 'Whole New World/Pretend World' begins with some goddamn heavy-hitting, loud synths that you, much like the recent stellar work of fellow caps lock enthusiasts, HEALTH. I’d hesitantly describe these pummeling synths as “Hardbass-inspired”, but please don’t quote me on that - you EDM fans have way too many sub-genres for one man to keep up with. The "Pretend World" segment of the song closes out the album with an appropriately chaotic ambient section that allows the rest of the record's bizareness to breathe.
Even if there are some bumps in the middle, 'OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES' is an album I really enjoy. The powerful, hard-hitting synths are crazily addictive, and SOPHIE’s willingness to try out some genuinely new things is extremely commendable. However, I’m hoping that SOPHIE keeps working with traditional pop artists. Pop music especially benefits from input by experimental voices, so I’d be willing to bet that any pop-leaning song that SOPHIE works on in the future will be more interesting than anything produced by the genre's nebulous music machine. Further than that, in this age of harsh, noisy, and experimental music, I could also see SOPHIE easily pairing up with people like Danny Brown, JPEGMAFIA, Alice Glass, or even our lord and saviour, Death Grips. Hopefully, I'll be right in one of those instances.
1. It’s Okay To Cry
4. Is It Cold In The Water?
6. Not Okay
9. Whole New World/Pretend World
'OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES' is out now.