Start with the name, and read it slowly: Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides. I Love Every Person’s Insides. Buried just below the surface of the year’s most awkward album title is a coded message of acceptance and inclusivity, which turns out to be a helpful Rosetta Stone for the record itself. Here the producer and songwriter Sophie stitches together nine songs that are volatile and wildly dissimilar from one another; at first they sound jarringly mismatched, but slowly they reveal a calculated construction, an album with faultless narrative flow and internal emotional logic. These songs belong together; you just have to listen beyond the superficial.
That this erstwhile “singles artist” has made such a cohesive album is a revelation in and of itself. It’s her first proper long-player, following a number of production assists for the likes of Madonna, Charli XCX, and Vince Staples, plus a 2015 assembly of loosies pointedly called Product. All of that established Sophie’s behind-the-boards proficiency, but it never hinted at her depth as a conceptual thinker. On Oil, everything comes together. Individually, each song feels like a sonic extremity: There’s glossy soft-rock schmaltz in “It’s Okay to Cry,” garish house music abrasion in “Ponyboy.” “Pretending” is a drifting ambient whisper, leading into the punchy dance floor ecstasy of “Immaterial.” These antipodes are tempered and aligned with one another through Sophie’s immaculate sequencing, which gives the album peaks and valleys, recurring themes, set-ups with big payoffs. The caustic songs give weight and grit to the fluffier ones; the fluffier ones soften the hard stuff. “Pretending” is all build-up, and that’s the point: Its moody mediations are the powder keg from which “Immaterial” explodes, making its crowd-pleasing pop beats feel worked for, well-earned.
As a producer, Sophie’s gift is in how deftly she orchestrates feel. Sometimes this means courting whiplash through jarring textural mashups; “Infatuation” begins as gossamer synth-pop, but its dreamy reverie is buzz-sawed in two by searing electric guitar. Just as odd is the nightmarish industrial grind of “Ponyboy,” where steely beats lurch and scrape through a chorus of throaty growls and raspy moans; imagine it as the belated club mix for Tom Waits’ Real Gone, maybe. She takes special pleasure in modulating the human voice; there’s something gleeful in how “Immaterial” zig-zags between naturalistic clarity and robotic chirpiness. While these songs create sparks from how the individual components rub against each other, others are gripping for their purity. “Is it Cold in the Water?” rides one melodic crest after another, a three-minute demo of dance music’s ability to carefully regulate a series of highs; and “It’s Okay to Cry” defies gravity with its layers upon layers of featherweight synths and confectionary pop. If the Pet Shop Boys went all-in on candor and emotional plainspeak, this song is what it might sound like.
Thelonious Monk might have heard the “ugly beauty” in these skewed extremities, where the bumps and imperfections are there to be felt but also to dissolve into something majestic and immersive. Sophie’s cut-and-paste synthesis of moods and textures isn’t just an aesthetic choice, though; it’s also thematic. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides is an album about the glory and the struggle in being self-made—and as its encrypted title suggests, self-realization is never quite simple or straightforward. “It’s Okay to Cry” rallies the album with a variation on that title, and an implicit call to self-love; “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way/ But I think your inside is your best side,” Sophie sings. (That last point is key: It’s telling that her first-ever recorded vocals come on her most emotionally accessible song about being true to yourself; most of the album’s vocals are handled by an accomplice called Mozart’s Sister.) “Immaterial,” the album’s emotional peak, dreams of liberation—from flesh and bone, from genes and blood: “I could be anything I want,” the song says, endless possibility springing from a rejection of all physical limitations.
But other songs suggest some of the tension that comes in remaking yourself, none more than “Faceshopping,” a glitchy dance beat that sounds like it was dropped into battery acid. Its relentless grind and nervous energy capture the fatiguing drive to close the gap between your actual and ideal selves. There is freedom in discovering who you were born to be, but pains in making that your lived reality. (Take note of the references to gender throughout the album; sexual fluidity is the grounding particular for these songs, but also the intellectual scaffolding for Sophie’s broader theme of questing for the real you.) But Sophie doesn’t make music for defeat, and here she gives the final word to hope. Throughout Oil, she sounds like she’s at play, testing the limits of pop music forms with brazen sonic extremes—or, on “Pretending,” abandoning form completely, another rejection of limitations. That playfulness may be the album’s answer to some of its toughest questions: Perhaps loving and accepting yourself begins when you take joy in the process of becoming.