SOPHIE produces raucous vulnerability on her debut ‘OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES’

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Since the release of her 2015 compilation album Product, SOPHIE has been working behind the scenes for artists from Vince Staples to Namie Amuro, weaving her signature industrial clamor and jittery pop tightly into every discography she has touched. If you listened closely, you could hear her anywhere you went, but she remained invisible and elusive as ever.

In October, SOPHIE released “It’s Okay to Cry,” the first single from her forthcoming album. The song, a sweeping ballad featuring SOPHIE’s own vocals swirling into a thundering powerhouse, was a complete departure from any of the producer-turned-singer’s previous work. The video, which features SOPHIE singing in front of a dynamic celestial backdrop, was even more surprising. For the first time, SOPHIE could be pinned down to one body, to one image. She seemed vulnerable and oh so real, and yet at the same time impossible to grasp. She was as ethereal and intangible as the violet clouds that pass behind her in the video.

The rest of OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, SOPHIE’s debut album, sounds more like an extension of SOPHIE’s previous unabashedly synthetic body of work than of the tenderness of “It’s Okay to Cry.” Yet the idea of the crushingly tangible that is still, somehow, impossible to grasp, to wrestle down into one coherent form, permeates the entirety of the album.

It starts in the structure of the songs themselves. Nearly every song on the album writhes to the rhythm of its own clanging electronic pulse. Sometimes this movement is delicately, barely concealed under the impossibly smooth vocals. Other times, the mechanics of Sophie’s production are laid bare, ready to be appreciated as fine clockwork might be.

Yet invariably, at some point, the major pulses of the song that have become so familiar will be stripped away abruptly to reveal a secret echo under the song’s surface. Sometimes this echo may contrast brutally with the song’s glittering, playful surface. At other times, it reveals a hidden emotional center to the song. Yet just as suddenly as the song’s undertones are revealed, they vanish back into the background. The song closes itself off as if it were closing a gap in its own circuitry.

The major exception to this rule is “Pretending,” a vast, ambient expanse of sound whose movements are slow and unsteady. The song stands in stark contrast to the rest of SOPHIE’s body of work, which, while often raucous and jarring, has always been marked by its precision. “Pretending,” on the other hand, seems to grow and to move as it wishes. The song howls and crescendos organically until, in its very last breaths, it comes to head with a familiar, artificial revving. It is a beautiful showcase of SOPHIE’s versatility as an artist.

Aside from being technically impressive, the biggest asset that OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES brings to the table is its ability to be, quite simply, a genuinely fun album.

“Immaterial” is, of course, a song about the endless ability to elude form and label and transform the self. More than anything, though, it’s a song with bouncing synths and a steady clap that make it fun to dance to. SOPHIE’s production makes it easy to lose track of the fact that she is singing about artifacts as messy and humans as genes and blood. The seriousness and metaphysical suggestion of the lyrics fade completely into the background.

Buzzing between the bubbly and the brutal, SOPHIE’s long-awaited debut album cements her as a pop powerhouse. She is nothing less than a double threat who can produce controlled mechanical whirs as skillfully as she can build entire atmospheres. OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES is a welcome introduction to SOPHIE the artist and persona and not just SOPHIE the producer. That her introduction is happening entirely on her own terms makes it all the sweeter.

Sannidhi Shukla covers music. Contact her at [email protected].