Combining the scrubbed-clean pop of her previous work and a novel sense of vulnerability, SOPHIE’s debut album creates a stunning soundscape.
Thanks to SOPHIE, we finally know that it’s okay to cry. The Scottish DJ, vocalist, producer and songwriter kicks off her debut album “OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES” with the self-affirming “It’s Okay to Cry.” Dropping in late 2017, the single’s music video marked the first time the previously anonymous artist appeared in the public eye or used her own vocals in a track.
These reveals are not the only departures from SOPHIE’s previous work. Beyond using the voices of others, SOPHIE’s 2015 compilation release “Product” features something of a hyperkinetic aesthetic. The compilation couples extremely mechanical instrumentation, often derived from synthesized balloons, plastic or metals, with surreal, bubbly female vocals.
Songs off the 2015 project like “HARD” or “VYZEE” exaggerate the classic structures of pop music to their extreme. The production is clean beyond belief, and the juxtaposition between the harsh instrumentation and sweet, high vocals creates an end product that seems to this day sonically unique to SOPHIE.
SOPHIE’s 2018 release does not abandon this hyperkinetic pop sound of previous works but instead expands it further into a uniquely beautiful and smart sonic experience. The sweet vocals, clean production and mechanical instrumentation still remain from her 2015 ventures. The difference lies in SOPHIE’s growing restraint in applying these elements.
The previously mentioned “It’s Okay to Cry” is a remarkably softer, more vulnerable song than anything the artist had ever released. The synthesized instrumentation twinkles lightly behind SOPHIE’s own digitally altered voice, building intensity until the song finally swells and recedes in its last 20 seconds. SOPHIE knows how to twist expectations in pop music, and so there’s this fantastic sense of give and take running throughout the project’s entirety.
SOPHIE playing with building and releasing tension is clearest when she follows the soft, introspective “It’s Okay to Cry” with the heavily mechanical and distorted “Ponyboy.” The song most similar to her 2015 work, “Ponyboy” indulges in its own instrumental heft. The layering of the metallic instrumentation and pulsating synths looms larger than any other track on the album, perhaps excepting “Faceshopping,” which immediately follows on the tracklist.
“Ponyboy” may not be the peak of the album, but it is undeniably a high point. Its incredibly catchy hook will keep it in your head for hours, and it can also really punch up a workout playlist if you’re in the market for that.
“Is It Cold in The Water?” leaves behind the pounding synths of the previous two tracks and returns the album to a place of remarkable restraint and beauty. The track’s vocals are displaced and haunting while the instrumentation retains a sense of urgency. Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” is called to mind in terms of what sort of sonic space the track creates: at once ethereal and pounding, hazy and immediate.
The album takes a turn toward the unknown and formless during “Pretending,” an edgeless experimental track that takes turns through different instrumental distortions and layers of human voices. This track combines organically shifting sound with inorganic synth to create a sort of symphonic fugue state.
Serving to juxtapose the last track’s nebulousness, “Immaterial” is a tight pop song that spotlights a catchy beat and fun, light vocals. It’s the most approachable moment on the album for those new to SOPHIE and lets the audience connect with something concrete and familiar.
The album closes out with the epic — and I mean that in the classical sense — “Whole New World/Pretend World.” Clocking in at a length of nine minutes, this track is a compilation of what works fantastically with the rest of the album: the instrumentation is richly layered and flits cleverly between bombasticism and simplicity.
“OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES” is an absolute treasure to the experimental pop scene, and it’ll probably end up being my album of the year. I know it’s still August, but this is one of those albums that stays with you months and months after first listen. I just can’t see anything in the near future ousting SOPHIE in terms of pure, visceral listening enjoyment. My highlights include “Ponyboy,” “Is It Cold In The Water?” and “Whole New World.”