SOPHIE‘s debut album “OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES” is out now on Transgressive and [PIAS].
Even before she had released a proper studio album, SOPHIE was already regarded as one of the most gifted and innovative producers of the 2010s. Arguably the best thing to come out of the whole PC Music gang, the producer’s music has left a lasting mark in the pop landscape without amounting to more than twenty officially released tracks. The terms “bubblegum bass” and “hyper-pop” will always be tied to her, which is particularly remarkable considering how scarce her officially released body of work is.
Coming out three years after her only other long-player “Product” (an eight-track compilation of singles released between 2013 and 2015), “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” is being rightly advertised as SOPHIE’s debut album. This isn’t a particularly innovative move, though it’s one that says a lot about her countercultural attitude in relation to the music business. Mostly due to financial reasons, the streaming era has brought in an unlikely revival of the album, but SOPHIE didn’t seem to want to take part in all of that – she kept releasing singles at a relatively meagre rate, and when the time came for her to finally put out her first studio album, she made the announcement in the most understated of fashions: “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” would see the light only ten days after its announcement without an accompanying single.
Considering the precedent that she set with “Product” and that the album’s first three tracks had already been released as singles in the same order as they appear in the final tracklist, one could think that the seemingly lack of fanfare that has accompanied “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” means that this is little more than a cash-grab compilation without the bigger picture in mind. Nothing could be further from the truth. SOPHIE’s debut studio LP is no rushed, non-sensical compilation of stand-alone tracks; in fact, it’s closer to being a well-planned concept album. What is this concept album exactly about? Well, that is less clear.
A cursory glance through professional and fan reviews reveals that the only common point in people’s interpretations of “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” is its reluctance to be categorized in a clear-cut manner. What seems to me the most appealing reading of it is that “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” is a pop album about pop music. Starting off with the anthemic, almost clichéd “It’s Okay To Cry” and finishing with the nine-minute long industrial frenzy of “Whole New World/Pretend World”, SOPHIE’s debut album is a journey through her vision of pop music as a multifarious space where wildly different moods can cohabitate. Whether what is coming through the speakers is a quintessential pop ballad that wouldn’t feel out of place in mainstream radio (“It’s Okay To Cry”), an ambient track that would force Boards of Canada to just retire and try to get new jobs (“Pretending) or a loud, breakcore-influenced stomper (“Whole New World/Pretend World”), “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” succeeds in delivering a series of different moods with meticulous precision. There is something here for everyone, as if the album were a sort of statement about pop music as society’s only shared safe space.
SOPHIE’s debut album is as ahead of its time as it is uncanny and uncomfortable. Some of these sounds are meant to put people off, but there is still something irresistible in them that makes you press play again and again. There is an industrial, sometimes even violent drive behind songs like “Ponyboy” or “Faceshopping”, the latter’s transition into the unexpectedly poppy bridge being so jarring and sudden that it turns it into one of the most puzzling pieces of her career. That all-pervasive vehemence is promptly balanced by the Björk-meets-A.G. Cook “Is It Cold in the Water?” and “Infatuation”, whose progressive build-up liberates all the tension accumulated in the previous songs. After taking yet another left turn with a couple of ambient tracks, the album finishes off with its two strongest and most frantic songs. “Immaterial” is an epileptic banger that could be regarded as old-school SOPHIE (is there’s actually such a thing), while “Whole New World/Pretend World” is simply an emotional and inexplicably touching odyssey through unexplored sonic universes.
One of the album’s most impressive accomplishments is that the artist’s presence is felt behind this myriad of styles and genres, which brings us back to the opening paragraphs of this review. This is no hodgepodge; this is an avant pop album that succeeds in defining SOPHIE as the eternally indefinable. “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” thrives on fluidity, liquid song structures and repetition to create an experience that is simply unparalleled: for forty minutes, you’re in SOPHIE’s world, and god knows what is going on there.
That “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” feels more like a radically left-turn, mid-career album rather than a debut speaks volumes about her status as one of the most genuinely unique artists of our age. She is someone for whom the word “experimental” falls short of its aim. However, it’s hard not to be disappointed that she has decided to play left field even before reaching her peak as a bona-fide pop artist. Sure,”Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” is an amazing album, and a hypothetical, more straightforward record would probably leave less of an enduring impression in pop history, but the most selfish part of me wishes that we would have got a full-on, “EMOTION”-like SOPHIE album with true crossover potential. But enough with the wishful thinking – listening to “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” is simply one of the most remarkable and breath-taking musical experiences that one can go through, and it is quite likely that it will be remembered as an avant-pop landmark for years to come.