Review Summary: high concept low dividends all ambition no fun
The album begins. It begins before "It's O.K. to Cry" - a glitter bomb cunningly wearing the trousers of a song - glisters it's way into a luculent vocal performance. It begins before we see the album cover: Sophie looking uncomfortable in an outfit that would surely result in a ferocious lip sink for your life performance. It begins at the album title: "oil of every pearl's un-insides". Oil of? I love. With you so far girl. Every Pearl's un? uhh. Every pearlsons? Insides is abundantly clear. Somehow, never mind the awkward l tripping the wordplay, we're supposed to be left with "I love every person's insides". As an act of wordplay it's convoluted, tenuous, ambitious and, worst of all, laboured. For an artist who succeeded in deconstructing intonations, complicating the ubiquitous assurances of pop with distortion and dis-rhythmic patter, it's an inauspicious start that acts a synecdoche of the album: laborious conceptual hauteur has been foregrounded over pop immediacy.
That, for me, is why this album just doesn't work. I can't comment on "It's Okay to Cry" other than to say I admire it tremendously as a coming-out statement much more than I enjoy it, though I don't particularly like tears being conflated with femininity for the umpteenth time. I can't comment on the strength that many Trans and Queer individuals have found through this album (there are some very moving essays on tinymixtapes, and in an interview with teen vogue, Sophie said she wanted to remove the veil and join the discussion more candidly and all power to her). I can comment that to these ears Sophie has dispensed with the charm and nuance that marked her early work, a halcyon time when we waited on tenterhooks to see what she would do next; I can say that Lemonade and Hard were my go-to tracks when I was asked to put something on at parties; I can say that that Product beguiled on it's release, a glorious melange of naivety, wisdom, pop nous, intriguing physical texture and fun.
Oil, by contrast, is charmless: a cold, clinical exercise in territory -- and this is important -- that Sophie charted anyway. The joys of her early work evidenced everything she's being acclaimed for here: problemetizing the distinction between male and female dimensions of pop, integrating mechanical and discordant elements to interfere with tropes and push the boundaries of what pop, fundamentally, could do and what could be assimilated into them, without losing the sheer joy, even euphoria, generated by the song-writing. One upon a time, she could do this with complexity and nuance, without falling the prey to the demand for the abject, for public espousal of ideology, straddling blurred lines with the grace of an Olympic gymnast. And I mean Product, when it was released, came in butt-plug format (seriously). It was future-thinking but also harked back to a time where sexuality, gender, alienation and cultural expansion were being explored in the early days of Disco.
And people read between the lines. Bipp played in gay clubs to roars of approval. Queer DJ's integrated either Vyzee or, weirdly, L.O.V.E. into their sets.
The difference being now that Sophie thrusts the formal innovation and weirdness in your face; there's a suffocating lack of ambiguity; there is cleverness on display, but it's so obvious it paradoxically denies any possibility of gravitas, and it retreads the same territory she's already charted but in a less interesting, more clinical way. There are traces of her old brilliance. "Faceshopping" combines the pots, pans and scraping knives textures with a gorgeously intimate vocal (who needs a vulva when you've got that uvula girl) and my favourite, "It's Not Okay", is terrifying, giddy and thrilling all at once, though one wonders why it's so short and the cheaply paulstretched "Infatuation" and "Pretending" go on interminably, unable to sustain the weight of the fairly basic ideas that carry them.
Other tracks have excellent ideas that are poorly-developed or mixed in order to sound as bizarre as possible. Ponyboy has too much going on simultaneously, mixed in such a way that the cacophony yields no pleasure or depth; Immaterial not enough; and I mean I can do cheese, and I can do corn, but Whole New World's combining of the two is a difficult to stomach sarnie. There's no denying the ambition on display here: the problem is that the ambition is to make what was already evident on her early work manifest, at the expense of joy, or the ***-eating grin that smears one's face during the J-Pop section of Lemonade, or the warmth of the production. I can't help but feel condescended to, and feel that Sophie has broken a cardinal law of giving the listener room to interpret, to parse, to decipher for themselves.
And so again we turn to I love every pearlsons insides: a thematic purpose, a conceit, weighed down by a veritable tonnage of not quite having the mixing or the equalizers to pull it off. A labour of love, sure, but this isn't reciprocal, it's didactic. By embellishing all that made her so brilliant in the first place, she has forfeited those same qualities. I once loved the kinetic and animated quality of her music; after seeing her pull the strings with trained precision, the magic is ruined, the illusion revealed, the carnival over.
The albums ends, as it must, a whole new world, sputtering out, a whole new world, signifying the end of an old one. The new world is one where everything must be abject, finger-pointingly direct, hands wrung at infelicities. The world that died was bubblegum bass, clever, generous, vibrant. It deserved a bang. It got a whimper.