Little more than two years ago, a mysterious song started swirling around the internet — a sugar-coated, maximalist anthem of bubblegum bass, as most people would later learn to call such tag. The song in question was “BIPP”, by London-based electronic music producer SOPHIE — real name Samuel Long, as fans would take a while to figure out — released via the then infant, entirely internet-based label/collective called PC Music. It sounded like nothing else this decade had witnessed thus far — an unabashed, trap-oriented take on 1990s colourful pop music. Looking in hindsight, “BIPP” inaugurated an era of ultra specificness in mainstream electronic music — its high-pitched vocals, teen pop approach to songwriting — yielding all sorts of debates on its supposed irony. Long gone was dubstep’s penchant for pointless maximalist, welcomed were a very strict, calculated kind of pop.
Which is not to say that SOPHIE got here all alone. He, for sure, benefited from Scottish producer Rustie’s earlier work — namely, his influential Glass Swords — and maybe even S-Type’s seminal “Billboard”. Yet, SOPHIE and, not by happenstance, a great part of PC Music’s roster, takes that maximalist sound to extremes — creating a new form of electro-pop.
SOPHIE’s first real compilation, then, is Product, the sum of his first two EPs plus four spare new songs. It’s also the London producer’s first test at showcasing his ability to hold the listener’s attention for more than a few minutes. And, in this matter, it succeeds immensely.
In truth, Product covers SOPHIE’s last couple years and plays safe for the most part — that is, it still presents us with the first two EPs — namely, BIPP/ELLE and LEMONADE/HARD, which is not a demerit per se. Instead, it only showcases the producer’s evolution — the differences between, for instance, “BIPP” and “Lemonade” are staggering.
Whereas “BIPP” and “ELLE” follow more traditional models of pop songs, the same can’t be said for the rest. The former are sugar-coated, ironic, even absurdist takes on the 1990s predilection for teen pop. The high-pitched, animalistic tone are there, self-evident. Last year’s “Hard” sees SOPHIE turning to a more mechanical song format, more club-ready even. It melds UK garage and trance and pop, ending up as a pop-oriented response to trap’s most conservative minds.
Yet things start to get really interesting when we move to the previously unreleased cuts. “MSMSMSM” is SOPHIE in his prime — an addictive reading of bubblegum bass with a more mechanical, almost lumber approach. It contains the best of both worlds — the London producer’s taste for pop’s most colorful tendencies and trap’s well-known technicism. And by mingling mainstream pop music and a certain scene’s passion for underground music, SOPHIE threatens to break the fourth wall.
What makes SOPHIE’s music — and perhaps PC Music’s catalogue as a whole — such a blast, and also such a controversial topic, may be due to the fact that it can be read in a variety of manners. As critic Tom Ewing puts it, SOPHIE’s music possesses a prismatic quality. It can be listened to while paying attention to several attributes at the same time, requiring a single way of reading it or, instead, no way at all. Some people see tracks like “BIPP” and “MSMSMSM” as attempts to blur the lines between pop and the underground, others choose to listen to them as the Sound of Now. Others just like watching the fire burn and see the conflictions. On top of it all, others like SOPHIE’s music — and, in a much larger scale, PC Music’s set of artists — as a very particular, distinct scene.
So, how should we tackle a song like “L.O.V.E.”, a track made up almost entirely of white noise? In the background, an amorphous voice spells those letters while no real climax comes. It shows how unpredictable the producer’s career tends to be — and how true to prismatic nature of his work is. The song is free of context — that is what happens once you spell words, stripping away their original meaning — and, paradoxically, the EP’s best song.
At times, SOPHIE’s music sounds a lot like it struggles to be real, almost as if it is being fake on purpose — just like, for instance, LIZ’s “When I Rule the World”, a song which he produced, was used in a Samsung ad. That is the case for “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye”, supposedly a love song that loses all this context when you consider the way it presents itself: a high-pitched voice says those words under a mechanical song structure. It’s hard to believe it. It sounds even critical towards those same things SOPHIE is trying to express. Again, the “prism” metaphor. Everyone knows that prisms are only mirrors in disguise, objects where we can see only what we want when we want. It’s exactly as a random voice says in “BIPP”: “I can make you feel better.” No doubt about that.