Scottish singer Sophie Xeon a.k.a. SOPHIE’s proper debut, the memorably titled OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES (stylized in all-caps like her name) is one of the strangest pop albums you will hear this year—or any year, for that matter. And it is one you will not want to miss.

How to describe this seemingly indescribable album? Bubblegum from another planet? Synths abound, as do distorted beats, processed vocals and plenty of other hallmarks of EDM-inspired pop music. But throughout, one gets the sense that these generic features are being not just deployed for the sake of entertainment but toyed with, broken down and subverted for the purpose of critique or at least defamiliarization.

After the palate-cleansing, too-cliché-to-be-serious “It’s Okay to Cry” lures the listener in, the curtain is pulled back and the madness that is “Ponyboy” is unleashed. It’s like Die Antwoord doing a mash-up of “Rude Boy,” “Anaconda” and, yes, “Pony.” The song is so compressed it sounds like it was filtered through a discarded video game console, and it has no clear structure to speak of—every part sounds like it could be either a verse, a chorus or neither.

As disorienting as “Ponyboy” is, you could still imagine it working in a club. And the same is true of many of the songs here, though it would take an especially forward-thinking club for it to actually take place. The glam “Faceshopping” pairs a demented twist on a Timbaland beat with lyrics that read like a performance art piece—“My face is the front of shop/ My face is the real shop front/ My shop is the face I front/ I’m real when I shop my face.” Later in the album, the skittering “Immaterial” echoes a similar theme, with lyrics that suggest the depersonalizing effects of consumer society and a sonic palette that could easily pass as a manic send-up of today’s most brainless pop music.

Elsewhere, the moody instrumental “Pretending” grows from a distant ambient roar, like an approaching thunderstorm to a pulsing hum reminiscent of MBV-style shoegaze. A similar sound emerges at the very end of the album, in the concluding sections of “Whole New World/ Pretend World,” providing much-needed respite after several minutes of harsh and industrial sounds that cut, splice and veer unexpectedly, like a “shuffle” button gone haywire.

That said, the album’s stand-out is by far “Is it Cold in the Water?”—one of the best songs of the year (in any genre). The song features the most compelling and front-and-center vocals of the album, genuinely moving lyrics (the most sincere-sounding, in this set of songs) and a Philip Glass-meets-Aphex Twin digital-symphonic backing that reaches a moving intensity through subtle dynamic shifts and repetition. It is an apt centerpiece for a dizzying, auspicious debut.

Whether SOPHIE ultimately wants to destroy pop or rescue it from itself, only time will tell. Meanwhile, this album gives us something to enjoy on the way down.

One Comment

  1. Valeriy

    May 11, 2021 at 7:41 am

    I remember hearing SOPHIE for the first time, it was either HARD or MSMSMSM in 2015, and it was like nothing I’d ever heard before.
    BTW Just received my Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides print today and it looks gorgeous!
    May SOPHIE’s legacy lives on.


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