SOPHIE has transformed. The Scottish DJ launched her career chopping vacumm-packed beats for PC Music, a collective of London-based dance scientists whose music sounded jointly inspired by K-Pop and H.R. Giger’s oiliest lithographs. Whereas her debut singles compilation suggested an academic remove from pop music- the title was ‘PRODUCT’- the producer’s debut is full of boundary-melting songs that mean every pitch-shifted word. The result is extraordinary- a proper album that hopscotches between drum ‘n’ bass, creamy Cocteau Twins dream-pop, and rubbery industrial squeaks.
What immediately stands out is the emotional directness. When PC Music first started pumping out cyberpunk art projects like Hannah Diamond and Charli XCX’s Vroom Vroom EP (another SOPHIE production), the work was roundly ridiculed as a sixth-form prank, as artless as a stink bomb in a classroom. There’s no risk of that dismissal here. The album opens with It’s Okay to Cry’, a twinkling power ballad that marks the first time SOPHIE has sung on record. Her voice is soft, tremulous yet reassuring as it floats over a gossamer synth-pop melody. Although the icy keys remain as uncanny as ever, the lyrics are startlingly blunt, especially for an artist who once gave a pre-show interview disguised as a member of the venue’s security detail.
This newfound vulnerability feels like a deliberate response. Once renowned for her airtight privacy, the music video for ‘It’s Not Okay’ depicts a topless SOPHIE smiling directly into the camera, exposing herself to the millions who might wish to regulate her body. It’s easy to label the producer as a spokesperson, especially when there are very few visible transgender artists who can command studio time with Madonna. But SOPHIE’s slipperiest work seems to look further than straightforward categories and beyond to more unrestricted modes of being. She wants to take us someplace new.
On the epic mid-album centrepiece ‘Is it Cold in the Water?’, Montreal singer Calia Believe gasps ‘I’m swimming, I’m breathing, evaporating’, narrating her own metamorphosis through gleaming waves of sound. The idea that entering a provocative space can open up the body to new possibilities has thrived throughout the history of dance, from sixties swing to Orbital, but SOPHIE pushes the rave cliché to new, DNA-altering extremes. Her work doesn’t idly pluck at the heartstrings. It wants to unzip you at the genetic level, unpeel your flesh, transform you into something intangible. Scary? No shit. But as Believe’s soprano flutters like vapour over pulsing electronica arpeggios, losing yourself never felt more liberating.
‘Pretending’ showcases SOPHIE’s skills as a composer; choral voices wail over grumbling reverb, their hums made eerie by the track’s cavernous networks of empty space. With its rippling synth bass and channel panning synths, ‘Not Okay’ crams a dizzying amount of ideas into its interlude level runtime. Other songs zig-zag like miniature odysseys; ‘Faceshopping’ begins as an industrial melange of shrieking drills and mutated electronic squeals, before suddenly blooming to a gorgeous bubblegum bridge. It’s a remarkable special effect: like a rainbow exploding over a high-rise.
Somehow, these tonal lurches feel less like showy handbrake turns than definite movements. On the first listen, ‘Immaterial’ sounds like the dullest song here, a Max Martin inspired bop reheated from a mid-2000s RiRi album. By the seventh, it becomes a sugary highlight with verses that merrily overthrow gendered stereotypes while feeling utterly a piece with the inky music that surrounds them. Like the canniest of pop technicians, from Phil Spector to Timbaland, SOPHIE knows that insurrection marches on a dance beat.
You do wonder whether the recording represents an incomplete idea that only really comes together in an underground club somewhere in Greater London. The almost wordless Ponyboy, for instance, sounds incredible in your headphones; a clattering blur of leathery synthetic crashes that run the stylistic gamut from EDM to S&M. But imagine it cranked up at an unsafe volume inside an overheated room that’s heaving with dancers and even the highest fidelity streaming rate feels a little puny.
These are minor concerns, though. SOPHIE may carefully measure out her own singing parts, but her radically non-binary voice is splattered all over the album’s trim 49 minutes. Whether the producer cum gamechanger is building the sound of the future remains uncertain. We can only hope.