After many consecutive listens, I still find myself struggling to put SOPHIE’s debut full-length into words. So, why not begin with the titular words themselves?
Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides.
Read it again. Sit with it for a moment. In this brief phrase, the Scottish producer evokes a dizzying set of transmutations: oil into pearl into flesh, voracious yet symbiotic, harmoniously incongruent. It conveys an energy equaled in the album’s cover art, in which plastic, latex, glitter, water, skin, and light all meld across SOPHIE’s body, her physicality enabling the radical convergence of palates and forms. It is through this transformative nature that Oil embodies the experience of its creator in vital fashion.
From her earliest releases, SOPHIE’s work has been marked by a unique elasticity, a result of her impossibly meticulous production methods. This signature talent created a malleable sound world that blurred timbres with almost reckless glee. On SOPHIE tracks, drums warp like paint hitting a wall, voices sound carved out of plastic, and minute details skitter in and out of view with a frenetic energy. Where previously this approach resulted in the hyperactive abstractions of her Product era, Oil is marked by a startling vulnerability that challenges any preconceived notions of her intent.
Much of the writing surrounding SOPHIE’s music relies an a very particular set of descriptors. Words like “artificial,” “synthetic, “bubbling,” “mechanical,” “sugary,” and so forth show up in nearly every critical examination of her music. There’s nothing inherently inaccurate about this language, but it aligns with the vocabulary surrounding another avenue of criticism: gender and, in particular, gender non-conformity.
These terms carry a new weight in light of SOPHIE’s recent openness about her gender identity. Accusations of artificiality, deception, and shallowness are frequently weaponized to justify the invalidation and harassment of trans people, particularly trans women. The identities of visibly trans and queer folk are viewed as cosmetic, a temporary indulgence that relies on stereotypes and reductive notions of gender and sexuality. “Exaggerated” and “fake” are common accusations, the implication being we are never really who we claim to be, that our deepest self is misinformed.
Prior to SOPHIE’s coming-out, the going interpretation of her music (largely by male critics, it should be noted) was as a quasi-satirical commentary on commercialization and vanity. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides dispels this idea, wielding its aesthetic artifice as a vehicle for profound authenticity. SOPHIE wryly collapses the binary between genuine and fake on Faceshopping’s biting mantra: “I’m real when I shop my face.” It is a playful middle-finger to the gatekeeping of queer expression, deflecting the put-down of artifice by doing away with its implicit value judgment. SOPHIE doesn’t just critique paradigmatic realness, she sidesteps it altogether.
Admittedly, it feels cheap to pin any interpretation of Oil entirely on SOPHIE’s identity. Early reviews have already begun to sensationalize her transition, and there is certainly a much wider range of themes at play. Still, I find myself awestruck by how much the album just radiates transness. From the violet hues that illuminate the cover to the androgynous whispers of “who are you deep down” gracing “Infatuation,” Oil is steeped in the sensory language of non-normative gender. Further, it eschews a reductive or obvious presentation of adversity, never indulging in the tropes of tragedy and suffering that guide much of the trans art that is allowed any degree of prominence. Whether intentional or incidental, SOPHIE’s previous anonymity has resulted in a brilliant Trojan Horse: rarely ever has such unapologetically trans music existed on a commercial scale so large.
Oil of Every Pearl seizes this stature to present a defiant, necessary joyfulness. It is a fully dimensional vision of trans and queer experience still lacking in mainstream representation. SOPHIE collects the unspoken expressions that have remained hidden for so long, projecting them in vivid, enormous fashion. Between the exuberant, furtive intimacy of “Not Okay,” the dissociative pallor of “Pretending,” and the nihilistic sexual rebellion of “Ponyboy,” SOPHIE consistently puts the emotional extremes of trans existence on comprehensive and resonant display.
Perhaps most beautiful of these moments is the ecstatic self-empowerment of “Immaterial.” As the track’s childlike choir repeats “immaterial girls, immaterial boys,” with mounting delight, SOPHIE turns this pejorative into a symbol of strength, of boundless potential. A voice woven with impossible glissandi chimes “I could be anything I want,” proudly reiterating the record’s thesis that to embrace what others deem artificial makes one more real than ever before. In what seems destined to become an anthem, “Immaterial” eschews tactics of invalidation by reimagining them as a space of comfort and reassurance, encapsulating the wondrous, imaginative realities of trans life.
SOPHIE brings this vital notion into being on closer “Whole New World / Pretend World.” On the song’s second part, its pummeling synth leads collapse into a mass of cherubic voices, swarmed with monolithic textures melting and coalescing into one another, a direct evocation of heavenly transcendence. It is a moment of blindingly queer bliss, in which the deconstruction of binaries and forms enables radical creation.
In this soundscape, as on many throughout the album, conceptions of “real” and “pretend” are made irrelevant, leaving behind only the world as is, a world of beauty, strangeness, and potential. With another question, it answers Oil of Every Pearl’s question of who decides the difference between authentic and fake: What difference? No utopia can begin without an act of imagination, and here, SOPHIE has provided a necessary blueprint to her own. How lucky we are to witness it.