Sponsored Content is a creepy listen, intentionally packed with artifice.
Apologies for the "meta" nature of this review, but there's very little avoiding it: Antwood's Sponsored Content is a cutting criticism of the business model that this very website runs on. The very first track is titled "Disable Ad Blocker". Perhaps you've noticed the many ads on this site. Perhaps you've even seen the site on one of the occasions where we have asked visitors to, yes, disable their ad blockers. For a site like PopMatters, ads are the primary source of revenue, and while blocking those ads may well lead to a more pleasant browsing experience for the reader, it also means that PopMatters doesn't get the revenue associated with them.
If PopMatters doesn't get revenue from those ads, PopMatters closes, which means that both PopMatters and the reader lose. (Related: Support our GoFundMe!)
The result, particularly in the case where the distributor of content is charged to evaluate the quality of some of the very products it is advertising, is a queasy co-existence in which the reader is expected to be able to separate advertisement from commentary. Antwood has mentioned in interviews that his initial inspiration for the album was the introduction of advertising into ASMR YouTube videos, a morally-ambiguous goal akin to subliminal suggestion. If there is demand for a product or service, there will inevitably be advertising dollars connected to that product or service. The more "creative" the advertisement, the more indistinguishable it becomes from the product or service it is attached to. Clearly, this constant consumerist push struck a nerve in Antwood.
Of course, parts of Sponsored Content are also connected to a break-up he suffered around the same time, which may have contributed to the bleak cynicism that so much of the album conveys.
How does any of this transfer to the music? Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie.
What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. "The New Industry" offers up the sort of beat that Ministry might have loved to stick walls of distorted guitars on top of once upon a time, and then a heavily manipulated voice begins to cry as the beats struggle to maintain control amidst beautiful, cirrus-cloud synths. "FIJI Water" offers something of a static-laden quiet interlude that builds to, yes, a heavily distorted and manipulated voice advertising FIJI Water, complete with extremely unsubtle water drops and shaky, skittering beats. "ICU" starts with a slowed-down but still instantly-recognizable Drake sample, which eventually breaks down into noise and beats with enough delay to approximate a helicopter. By the time the air-raid sirens appear, Antwood sounds as though he's gone completely off the deep end.
All of the chaos is reined in, however, for the final two tracks, the simultaneously peaceful and disquieting "Don't Go" and the hilariously synthetic "Human". The former, after getting an interminable Zuckerberg anecdote out of the way, pairs a stereotypically evil, pitch-shifted low voice saying things like "I am meant to serve" and "I will crush those who stand before me" with more of those extended lovely synths that snuck into "The New Industry". The latter is a ballad for electric piano and voice, except that the voice is quite clearly generated rather than sung, offering pitch jumps Celine Dion wouldn't even bother with and "words" that approximate Simlish or Minion-speak. By the time it shifts to a full synth freakout, it comes off as strangely triumphant, at peace even. For such a chaotic, willfully strange album, it is both out-of-character and kind of perfect as an album closer.
Antwood certainly gets his point across. It's the type of album that makes you uncomfortable, that's difficult to get through because it openly and outwardly avoids easy categorization or repetitive melodies. It's a creepy listen intentionally packed with artifice, with the occasional peek of a sense of humor to keep things from getting too dire. It's an album that makes a point without necessarily offering a solution. Maybe there is no solution; maybe the integration of into all aspects of our lives is an inevitable destination. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement.
But please: do disable your ad blockers.