Review: Pop Is Rebuilt in SOPHIE’s Own Mysterious Image on ‘PRODUCT’
Release Date: November 27, 2015
SOPHIE earns the rarest of pop boasts: Not sounding like anyone else. This isn’t lost on the once-anonymous producer who has likened her music to molecular gastronomy. (There’s one chief difference, though — it’s far cheaper than eating at the Fat Duck.) At press time, all but one track on SOPHIE’s long-brewing debut “album” PRODUCT (which totals a spry 25 minutes) are available free on SoundCloud, and four of them were rounding the year-end list circuit before 2015. For $38 American you could own these songs on a CD in a textured “silicon bubble case” or, for $75, you can have them as a download accompanying another silicon “product,” described as “skin safe, odorless, and tasteless” because it’s a sex toy. Thus we’re given a choice of experiencing SOPHIE as music only, or as a physical object which may or may not assist with orgasm in a far more hands-on way than Barry White ever intended. The music can be everything or a component in something larger. With all due respect to Kanye, Yeezus’ invisible artwork /clear-jewelbox bid didn’t actually double as an accessory to help fuck anyone’s Hampton spouse.
In SOPHIE’s creations you can hear the desire to turn music into something beyond music; a mastery of the Elektron Monomachine sound generator has led her to break down the parts of a song for interviewers as not kick and snare but “latex, balloons, bubbles, metal, plastic.” That her sonics resemble these textures in no debatable or abstract way is a testament to how sharply the producer translates his vision onto, uh, silicon. And her metallic-latex touch has now graced NYC rap riot boi Le1f (“Koi”) as well as underdog brat-pop princess Charli XCX (several unreleased tracks that he’s previewed in his DJ sets). More subtly it was present in the colliding synth chords of Madonna’s “Bitch, I’m Madonna” — SOPHIE’s highest-profile collaboration to date — if not the dubstep chorus that was almost certainly the work of co-producer Diplo.
And her silent-partner affiliation with the PC Music collective has erected an entire movement around the SOPHIE sound, with producers A.G. Cook and Danny L Harle transforming songs by personalities GFOTY and Hannah Diamond into sparkle-bubble dance infomercials emceed by helium-huffing parody divas. Cook and SOPHIE herself created the ultimate prefab-pop/soda-commercial parody “Hey QT,” credited to the mysterious QT, who tried to pass herself off as an energy drink before public appearances confirmed her likeness wasn’t just that of a stock photo. PRODUCT is SOPHIE’s coming-out party as more than a shadowy wunderkind behind a high-concept performance-art project or an in-demand producer du jour. And once you get over its miniscule run time and cannibalization of the previously released, it’s an incredible producer’s-ear collection that dwarfs everything you ever wanted from full-lengths by Timbaland, N.E.R.D., Mark Ronson and Mirwais combined. It’s a demo portfolio as greatest-hits album.
The instant classic “Bipp” sets the stage here just as it did for PC Music altogether in 2013, as a slightly new-jack-y floor filler built on stabs of pulled-taffy synth so aggressive you don’t even notice there aren’t any drums until a thinkpiece mentions it. But its B-side, “Elle,” has aged unprecedentedly well over the last two years, with its somber thicket of strings (fit for Björk’s Homogenic) vying with mechanized yelps and faucet droplets. Last year’s more industrialized “Lemonade”/“Hard” twofer was a move away from dance music, into trickier dynamic structures and more overt subversion — “Lemonade” is a high-tech advertisement for a drink even kindergarteners can manufacture and distribute, while “Hard” is adults-only innuendo provided by GFOTY, over what sounds like an unfair fight between the full cast of Stomp and your grandmother’s heirloom music box. The implicit challenge of placing four new songs against these proven bangers is that they have to match the quality. Most of them are actually better.
“Most” meaning all except “MSMSMSM,” the first of the new tracks and more of a palate cleanser, if your idea of an intermission is a drum solo performed on aluminum siding. It leads into the immeasurably catchy “Vyzee,” which returns to the warped rave feel of “Bipp” and the carbonated double entendres of “Hey QT” (“Shake it up and make it fizz”), now fitted with muscular kicks and whipcrack snares amidst its repeated come-on “if that’s what you wanna do.” One of the delights of PRODUCT is hearing familiar blobs of audio memory reconstituted: the malfunctioning squirts from Missy Elliott’s “On & On” or the orange-alert teapot from Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause” pitched even higher.
One could make arguments for SOPHIE’s position on the spectra of pop or dance and their various subdivisions, not to mention her debt to Aphex Twin’s maliciously playful Richard D. James Album, but there isn’t a genre or even an artist living or dead comparable to “L.O.V.E.,” which sounds like she tried to throw that Monomachine into the bathtub and record the sound of electrocution itself. That the noisome horror is relieved by bursts of toy-like melody and crowds shouting “Jump!” is a testament to how qualified to sell BDSM toys this peddler of rectal dilators really is.
And then there’s the closing “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye,” the most bullshit-free pop song yet to emerge from anyone in the PC Music orbit, with a pronounced homage to Prince’s transcendental “When You Were Mine,” down to the grunt that bisects the line “I hadn’t seen you since I was about 16 years old.” On this ex-lovers’ reunion tale (!), it’s much more noticeable that there are no drums, only skittering synths that constrict and coarsen as the euphoric chorus approaches. It’s perhaps too formalist to have been a sidechained smash — the touch is too light and the aura too intense. But it’s on par with any Max Martin achievement. It should dust any doubts about SOPHIE’s songwriting bona fides.
To say that PRODUCT leaves you wanting more is an understatement, beginning and ending with EDM you can’t dance to, building and toppling all kinds of aural Legos in between. It could be a perfect freeze-frame before SOPHIE runs out of tricks — or foreplay for a lengthy, challenging career. But there’s more sincerity in its love of commercial jingles and subversive sex than anyone could’ve predicted, and there’s always the sex-toy business if this silicon venture works out. If that’s what you wanna do.
Editor’s note: This review has since been edited to omit SOPHIE’s dead name and reflect her preferred gender pronouns.