Sophie — Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides


A spectacular ur-pop debut elides truth into lies

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Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides was ranked second in my Top Ten Albums I Wrote About in 2018 list, and was awarded the Silver Interrobang for What the Shit was That

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The sky is washed in dusky lavender as night bruises the distant horizon. Stretching as far as the eye can see is a beach of pearls, each one a nugget of pop perfection, gestated in the depths of those shimmering waters, nurtured and smoothed to perfection in the opalescent tides, gently nestled into its own special place on this very special beach.

Thought was borne into the clouds, evaporated from the land, leaving behind impure salts and precipitates of uncertainty and equivocation and patronising protection. Thought was rained upon the ocean, into the gloom far out beyond the shining shores, each drop sparkling and dancing across those dark currents veined and swirled with liquid gold. Thought was distilled and crystallised and swollen, and washed up onto the shore to glint softly in the ultraviolet twilight.

Sophie deals in absolutes. Her palette is not contrived of squirted paint or dabbed watercolour, but asserted in fistfuls of plastics and acrylics, metal and rubber threads spun like alloyed silk from her fingertips, either pliable as putty or rigid electric white. There is nothing in between. She constructs each artwork in imitation of the pop song, a gleaming airtight artifice, but with nothing in its core. Her music is hollow, devoid of message or manifesto. She declares that the artifice is all there is, and all that is needed, drawing forth identical emotional responses with maximum efficiency.

A Sophie song is a keystone without an arch.

A Sophie song is style devoid of substance.

But from the nothingness inside emerges something new. Something she didn’t put there.

She poses, a perfect doll ankle-deep in the freezing, boiling waters. She’s gowned in cellophane, gloved in latex, choked with glass and coiffed with curls of rust. And she decides that it will rain.

‘It’s Okay to Cry’ begins to fall smoothly from the heavens, each ice-cold drop piercing her skin like a knife. Her voice garbles at the edges, dissolving into the ebb and flow of the tides tugging at her feet. It’s distressingly beautiful, it’s heartbreakingly sincere, and like her it is completely fake.

I hope you don’t take this the wrong way /
But I think your inside is your best side /
Is that a teardrop in your eye?

And with a snap of her fingers, a ripple of thunder blossoms across the sky and the song shifts into double time. Pale lightning crashes down and the beach erupts, ideas soldered together into strange new shapes, prismatic polyhedra, impossible Klein sculptures, silicon marrow and glossy knuckles bouncing away, reflecting each crackle and flash, catching the failing light.

Sophie stands and begins to walk. Peacetime is over. The storm has come.

She is the nexus between minimalism and maximalism. She identifies the essential aspects and magnifies and warps them, thrusting them high into the indigo clouds above while discarding the rest, peeling away the cowardly skin, stripping down the tender meat scooping out the unimportant organs (the fortunate ones may be remodelled into a canopic single). She requires a skeleton, pure and clean. Perhaps she will fill the spaces with moulded mercury, smudged in sage and ethylene. Or perhaps she will take the bones and fashion a new creature, a new scaffolding for new ideas.

Sophie turns her face to the north. In the distance, through the haze of rain, looms a colossal shadow. The stumbling, shambling silhouette of a past experiment, a majestic creature of rolling flesh and gnashing jaws. It rears up slowly, slowly, its cry rumbling across the beach. The sonic boom provokes a dance of pearls in its wake. The creature casts too many shadows. Why are its legs like that?

A note of menace has crept into the album on just the second track, the horrifying chimaera suggested by ‘Ponyboy’, and will remain as long as it chooses. The horse, an ancient symbol of nobility and freedom, with some modifications, certain retrofits; the McElroys on hallucinogenics, Bojack Horseman as directed by Cronenberg. The call-and-response pattern bends and buckles and deforms under its own prodigious weight, crushed under each ton skimmed off Garyl the Binicorn or Torsey the Torso Horse.

The storm has not subsided. Its clouds billow darker and its winds blow stronger, ruffling Sophie’s curls and rustling her elegant skirts, and yet the sea is as still as a liquid mirror. She steps through the waters leaving not a trace behind her, allowing a single gloved hand to dip below the surface. Her reflection stops. It does not follow.

Her fingertips trace incomprehensible sigils. With coded instructions, Sophie puppets her double.

My face is the front of shop /
My face is the real shopfront /
My shop is the face I front /
I’m real when I shop my face

The water laps at her waist, refracting the dying light in kaleidoscopic crimps. The wind flurries out of her in sparkling swooning frightening melisma, blowing stronger, rising higher as she sinks lower, until at last she disappears below the surface. Columns of ferrofluid leap from the place where she was lost, cords of water writhing and twisting high into the air, only to splash down and crush the abandoned reflection.

Sophie does not need to hold her breath. She drinks deep.

Six minutes of nacreous ambience. Six minutes of swirling whalesong. Snatches of voice drift by, gibbering and gabbling, whispering and yowling through the droning synthetic nothing. ‘Pretending’ proves oddly soothing, hypnotic, irresistible, especially after the harsh textures of the storm. It dilates grandly, nobly, almost cinematically, like 2001: A Space Odyssey mashed through Blade Runner: 2049. And slowly, slowly, a thousand engines whirr to life, a million floodlights flicker on, and the eye opens.

In film studies, they speak of the Kuleshov Effect. Briefly, the thematic impact of a transition says so much more than two consecutive shots or scenes can say alone. Stanley Kubrick executes one of the best-known examples in A Space Odyssey, cutting sharply from a skyborne bone to a skeletal spaceship. He efficiently skips over millions of years of evolution in the blink of an eye, to imply that humanity taking to the stars is a direct result of the presence of the obelisk, and a direct continuation of early apes developing the simplest tools. Rian Johnson arranges Rey and Kylo Ren’s Force Skyping in Star Wars: The Last Jedi similarly. Though the two are half a galaxy apart, he shoots their conversations as though they are standing right next to each other, because they are. Emotionally, and therefore physically.

I was anxious and cowed by the deathly serious tone Sophie was taking, intimidated by her artistry and in particular this gargantuan molten interlude. I was marked by the ponyboy. I was seriously considering abandoning Pearl for Product, her 2015 singles compilation. But then it hit me.

Anyhow, any place, anywhere, anyone /
Immaterial girls /
Immaterial boys /
Any form, any shape, anyway, anything /
Anything I want

‘Immaterial’ is a physical blow, each beat an invigorating slap to the drowsing, drowning face. It rushes in with delirious hyperglycaemic joy, spat through teeth gritted in a radiant plastic grimace. It is a desperate, euphoric cry for help, disguised as a banger of a pop song.

You could be me, and I could be you /
Always the same, and never the same /
Day by day, life after life

Between autotuned shrieks of glee and terror that wouldn’t sound out of place in the ruins of the Aperture Science Enrichment Centre, Sophie cuts to the heart of the performative pop star with visceral, corporeal specificity.

Without my legs or my hair /
Without my jeans or my blood /
With no name and with no type of story /
Where do I live? /
Tell me, where do I exist?

It is on this spectacular, wild-eyed performance that Sophie delivers on the promise of her mononym. An artist styled with a single name elevates herself among the ranks of pop superstardom, a presumptuous act not to be mishandled. Lorde and Kylie earned their status as household names by respectively embodying the zeitgeist of a generation and appearing a bunch on Neighbours I think. Iceland’s foremost alchemist Björk has no peers. Beyoncé is the only Beyoncé.

I can’t be held down

After Pearl, nobody will ask, ‘Sophie who?’

Everybody will already know.

The allusion to Madonna is not a coincidence. Sophie is coming for that crown.

As night creeps higher into the sky and darkness swallows the land, Sophie brings this extraordinary album to a close. And what she does in the darkness cannot be seen, only heard. And felt. And if there are any survivors, perhaps they will bear witness to the aftermath, the carnage, the revelation.

A whole new world”, declares Sophie, with immaterial delight, “for you and me”. But she sticks on the last word, a skipped record, a scratched disc. Alarms begin to sound in the distance, pulsing in time with her glass collar. The contrabass buzz of synthesisers rises with the wind, a herald of what’s to come.

Then it does, with great shuddering gasps, an unholy maelstrom imploding down into the night. The old world passes away, not gently, but with black fire and cold fury. With another snap of latex, Sophie allows us the briefest glimpse of dawn in her new world, before that too is snatched away. It lasts barely nine minutes. Pearl is over too, just shy of forty.

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This album is Sophie’s true debut, her first cohesive long-play statement of artistic intent. (And what a statement it is.) Her existing catalogue of impressive singles is available for your listening pleasure, collected on 2015’s Product, and as a little bonus for you, my adoring fans, I’d like to say a few words on these early experiments, Sophie’s first forays into art-pop designed to slam the style-to-substance ratio as far to the left as inhumanly possible.

Of course, Product does not cohere particularly well as an album, for it is not an album, but a compendium of tracks not designed or intended to fit beside another in any way. There is an art to album sequencing, to building and releasing tension, to balancing variety with consistency, and this compilation should not be judged or listened to as one would a regular record. The singles’ cover art is way better anyway. Sleek and clean. An artful array of 3D models floating in voids white but for the drop shadows: a gushing aluminium can, a happy little toy bug, and a perplexing preponderance of slides.

Still, jewels shine just as brightly, whether permanently welded into a necklace or arranged retroactively on a velvet cushion, and bow howdy are there some diamonds here.

Sophie has a crack at just about everything, from obnoxious parodies to obscene caricatures. ‘Get Higher’ twists a manic instruction in mindless repetitions, intention without thought, imperative stripped of reason, sliced through with synthetic squeaking Psycho strings in an horrific impersonation of that notorious disco trope. The Ravellian crescendo of ‘Just Like We Never Said Goodbye’ is a fiendish little creation that stretches tension tighter and tighter, never to be released.

The compilation marks its highest point on ‘Vyzee’, a set of confusing, tactile instructions. It’s definitely an invitation, but what you’re being invited to do remains unclear. What is clear is that ‘Vyzee’ is a slapper of a pop tune, sampled from what sounds like the rampaging of a particularly violent balloon animal.

You’ve got to stir that mixture /
Make it really thick /
Let it drip all over /
Now give the spoon a lick

Sophie delivers this all like a sullen, bored high-schooler, leading into a delightfully passive-aggressive chorus:

Shake it up and make it fizz /
Go crazy and go pop /
If that’s what you want to do

Retrospectively, many of these tracks feel like embryonic precursors to ideas fully developed on Pearl. Sophie has quite a few tricks up her sleeve, and boasts a deft sense of how to combine them in fresh, new ways. She does sneak a single toe over the line, though: ‘Vyzee’ splinters along a hairline crack when she literally namechecks tomato soup cans. We get it. Her aesthetic, though, is fully formed from the very beginning, the gleaming artifice apparent in even her earliest works, her voice smooth and plasticine-supple and stripped of all humanity.

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Which makes its restoration on Pearl all the more exciting. She is real and alive on these songs. An avatar created by some anonymous recluse, certainly, a fabulist and a peddler of falsehoods, to be sure, but real nonetheless. Perhaps Sophie chose her name because of its roots stretching all the way back to ancient Greece, a word meaning wisdom, or something adjacent. Perhaps Sophie is making a little pun on sophistry or solipsism. Hell, perhaps she’s just from Belarus. I’m sure that information is available to anyone with fingers to Google with, but frankly, I prefer the lie. That’s where terror and disgust have been commingled with clear-eyed wonder and transcendent beauty.

What do you call music like this? Music that breaks down the very building blocks used to construct the safe and familiar, and threads them into a necklace. Megapop, art-pop, avant-pop, anti-pop, these all fail to capture the yawning breadth of the Sophie experiment.

You can describe its separate elements. Weird. Electronic. Synthetic.

You can describe how it makes you feel. Enraptured. Shocked. Awed.

The only word the seems to fit is her name: Sophie.

And if there’s anything to be gleaned from Pearl, it’s the impression that Sophie isn’t super into labels.