Many of us, myself included, often forget the term “pop” encompasses far more than the Madges, Britneys, or Fifth Harmony’s of the industry. Pop music takes the trends and sounds of the day and channels them into something consumable, but perhaps more importantly, something inescapable. Sophie Xeon, simply known as Sophie, understands how to do this very well. Having spent the past few years blessing many artists with some of their best tracks, she now clears them out of the way for Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Sides, a personal triumph that continues her revamping of what pop means today. Its contents show a trajectory from acts like Art of Noise into ‘90s pop and Eurodance to today’s droning and experimental music by acts such as Lotic.
Sophie’s “debut,” Product followed a template more similar to the PC music sound Sophie grew closely associated with, though she was never technically a part of it. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-sides sounds very much like a live Sophie show, and I’m talking even before her more recent live debuts. Synths sporadically lash outwards, often while a deep droning carries on in the background. Oil . . . gleefully rather than angrily bucks the conventions of what is considered “pleasing” or “proper” in music. In doing so, it implores fans to listen closely, an effect that also forces one to hear Sophie’s own unorthodox yet no less astute observations about the human condition. If pop music embodies the trends and ideals of the present moment, using it to segue into the unconventional is a brilliant way to start.
First, she leads with the cathartic “It’s Okay To Cry”, right off the bat turning away from the steely detachment people expect of adults. Immediately, Sophie turns the ideal pop record on its head by initiating hers with a joyous celebration of sadness. Rather than be sad, Sophie embraces the right to be sad, a surprisingly positive message in the age of somber pop.
With that out of the way, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Sides is free to examine other topics and stylings through Sophie’s own distinct and keen vision. Following the opening track come the aggressive “Ponyboy” and “Faceshopping”, industrial and menacing tracks that cavort about in celebration of S&M and cosmetic surgery respectively. “Faceshopping” in particular, the way it twists the same words into various statements of swagger, forces the listener not just to confront their preconceptions of music but also the idea of authenticity. Furthermore, both songs present ideas typically considered feminine or superficial and gives them a punk edge one could easily mosh to.
For all its belligerence, Oil . . . can be equally composed and reserved when it wants. Though no less gigantic in scope, “Infatuation” takes Sophie’s distinctive ripples and percussive elements and pairs them with dreamy vocals and a tinge of piano. The effect is a soothing exploration of obsession, again highlighting Sophie’s knack for subversion. Meanwhile, “Pretending”, which features no (discernable) vocals whatsoever, simply looms overhead in a sea of drones and other muddled sounds; it’s simultaneously eerie and a little annoying, simply because it, along a few other tracks, just goes on forever.
Though the production provides the foundation for Oil . . ., Sophie and featured vocalist Caila deserve recognition for their novel and insightful lyrics. “Soft ache, me/Earth-shaking” they lament on “Is It Cold In the Water?”, which sounds as devastating as any singer-songwriter’s acoustic ballads. Meanwhile, “Immaterial”, something like Charli XCX meets Vengaboys, joyously celebrates the fluidity of identity with a chorus that is both the title of the song and a declaration of the self: “Im-ma-ma-terial” easily transforms into “I’m a material,” a statement of one’s ability to fashion themselves into whomever they see fit.
Unlike Jasmine and Aladdin, Sophie understands the dangers and fears that come with the unexplored on their version of “Whole New World”. It packs an industrial punch, symbolic of the harshness that comes with new territory. As it careens onward and becomes more familiar, the pounding synths lose a bit of their edge and the track levels out into faint background vocals and metallic hums that sound like passing TIE fighters and podracers. That, my friends, is how you transform something into pop, by hammering it over people’s heads until it starts to make sense to them. Advertisers have known this for years, but now that the artists are on to it, it means the messages might start sounding a little bit different.
Thank god for that. B PLUS