Whether ballads or bangers, pop songs come designed to spike our blood sugar. They’re meant to scoop up as many ears as possible into the invisible alchemy of mass appeal, to solidify themselves as cultural touchstones, to fill our veins up with uncomplicated pleasure. So, what happens when you take the slickest, most crystalline ingredients in pop’s arsenal and twist them into something ever so slightly sinister? You get Sophie.
The formerly anonymous UK producer associated but not grouped in with netlabel-turned-enterprise PC Music has melted down eight singles into one body-safe silicon Product, and it’s as strange a release as we’re likely to get from electronic music’s button-pushers this year. For one, half of these songs have been out for years, trickling onto the web through Soundcloud entries decorated with glossy and contextless CGI objects. For another, the physical release of Product boasts the option of purchasing the record alongside a high quality sex toy seemingly designed to fit just about any orifice (or pair of orifices) you’d like to fill. If there were ever a question of the person behind the Sophie brand being too male, too straight, too normative, here, at least, it’s countered with a cheeky gesture towards kink. Sophie could have thrown in an anatomically accurate appendage with Product; instead, we get a double-ended, non-representative bioform whose potential uses are ungendered and unbounded.
That queering of form doesn’t start and end with the plug. Product blurs the traditional subject/object power relationship of pop music, bending desire as easily as it bends waveforms. Sophie’s music has always come decorated with artificially high-pitched vocals, casting an image of digitally augmented femininity in the heart of rubbery, gleaming synth environments. “Hard”, still Product’s clear highlight two years after its original release as a B-side to “Lemonade”, whips out line after line of kinky desire at a rattling pace. “Did I make you proud?/ I tried so hard,” pleads the track’s anonymous voice. “I get so hard,” she repeats at the chorus, while buzzing bass and glittering bells bounce off of each other. The song’s raw kineticism ranks it among the most fun we’ve heard in years; its sly queerness makes it extra sticky.
Product’s A-side, which kicks off with Sophie’s breakthrough track “Bipp”, finds staying power in the sheer detail of its programming. Every sound here has been whipped up from scratch on an analog machine, and they all sound like they could be emanating from real, tangible objects: rubber balls, tin cans, steel plates. It’s as if Sophie has figured out a way to 3D-print sound, bypassing emulation and delivering something you can hold in your hand. “Lemonade” still fizzes like real, carbonated liquid; “Hard” clangs like a body in someone’s rubber dungeon.
The second half, full of previously unheard tracks, applies the same attention to detail to bizarre new skeletons. “MSMSMSM” and “L.O.V.E.” bypass pop hooks entirely, instead ruminating on corrugated textures to the point of discomfort. The latter is especially creepy; that trademark Sophie voice repeats the title’s four letters until they lose meaning, broken down into their discrete parts as a distinctly annoying digital mosquito buzzes throughout. For someone who’s made a name as a killer live DJ, “L.O.V.E.” seems ill-fitted to any sound system besides a pair of headphones wrapped around a paranoid brain. “Vyzee”, meanwhile, urges us to go “crazy in the pub,” although its vision of a good night out turns more violent than usual: “Squish it in your hand/ Make it pop red and white/ Tomato soup can.” Sophie excavates the visceral innards of someone as banally iconic as Warhol, as if the point of his Campbell’s print wasn’t the branding on the label but the viscous, acidic goop lurking inside the whole time.
Product’s closing statement, “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye”, is the first song under Sophie’s name to actually trace a narrative instead of a scenario or an idea. The lyrics describe two former lovers meeting for the first time since they were teenagers and coming together as though nothing had changed in all that time. Though Product is billed as a singles collection, its sequencing matters like an album; the track’s placement lets it bow under the weight of all the bizarre moments that precede it, leaving gashes too deep for it to be as treacly and plasticine as its title might suggest. “Goodbye” bears an incomplete and mutated emotionality. “It makes me feel/ It makes me feel,” its chorus repeats, refusing to complete the thought until the very last line: “Like I don’t ever want to say goodbye.” The voice is as tinny and fake as ever, its accompaniment as airless and pristine as the rest of the record. And yet some humanity seeps through, strangled.
Sophie’s obsession with consumerist aesthetics inverts the mechanism used in corporate manipulation. A Sophie song is the opposite of a holiday commercial: Instead of indulging real sentiment to the point of appearing false, it apes the false so deeply that a playful spark has just enough oxygen to light up. It’s a careful balance to strike, and if it doesn’t make Sophie the most vital producer, it at least makes Product one of the more mischievous music objects under the current atmosphere.
Essential Tracks: “Bipp”, “Hard”, and “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye”