When Scottish singer/producer Sophie Xeon fell from the roof of her house on January 30, 2021, she left behind a small body of work released under her own name: a singles compilation, a studio album and a collection of remixes from it. She had come full circle by releasing a 12-inch single of Autechre’s remix of her 2013 track “Bipp,” backed by the previously unreleased “UNISIL,” just days before her death.
Her importance rested as much on her direct musical influence as well as inspiring a new generation of young transgender and non-binary artists. (In some respects, her work can be seen as analogous to the Velvet Underground or the Stooges, commercial “failures” whose DNA shaped so much later rock. Producing Charli XCX’s 2016 EP Vroom Vroom, SOPHIE (as she rendered it) led her to a more adventurous direction, giving Charli indie cred and a life beyond her hit “Boom Clap.” SOPHIE may not have landed on the Billboard 200 under her own name as an artist, but she worked with Madonna (co-producing “Bitch, I’m Madonna”), Kendrick Lamar (who rapped on Vince Staples’ “Yeah Right,” which she co-produced) and Lady Gaga (although their collaboration has yet to be released).
When she first emerged, SOPHIE was associated with the PC Music label’s semi-parodic, highly exaggerated take on pop music; she released the one-off single “Hey QT” in a trio with A. G. Cook and singer Hayden Dunham. A jingle for an apocryphal energy drink, “Hey QT” fits in with the tone of Product, which compiles the A- and B-sides of two early singles and adds four other songs. At the time, SOPHIE described her music as “advertising.” (“Lemonade” was actually used in a McDonald’s commercial.) The entire track of “Bipp” sounds pitch-shifted, with helium-toned vocals bouncing over the beat. (Autechre’s remix brings it back down.) “Lemonade” and “Hard” play around with how far you can stretch catchy melodies over drum programming, suggesting a sample of a construction site caught mid-explosion. (Metallic timbres, produced on the Electron Monomachine synthesizer, were one of her signatures.) “Vyzee” and “L.O.V.E.” play with childlike female vocals and music-box melodies amidst chaos; the former is especially creepy because its double entendres about “fizzy drinks” sound like they’re sung by a 12-year-old through a slightly damaged microphone. Synthesized strings, chimes and blasts of noise rise and fall in the mix, with careful attention to structure. Beneath all the noise, SOPHIE was creating a new approach to songwriting, dispensing with verse-chorus-verse structure in favor of something much looser. As good as Product is, it doesn’t hang together like a traditional album.
Before the release of “It’s Okay to Cry” in 2017, SOPHIE was accused of being a man appropriating a female identity. She had always worked with other vocalists, but with “It’s Okay to Cry,” she bared both her own voice and body, coming out as transgender, appearing in the video singing her heart out over bright, near-new age synthesizers.
Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, which starts with “It’s Okay to Cry,” dramatically upped her level of ambition as a solo artist. “Faceshopping” suggests the force of technology on women’s views of their bodies, yet it comes off as ambivalent. Other songs dabble in transhumanism, embracing the synthetic as a release from the constraints of “natural” gender roles. “Immaterial” flips Madonna’s “Material Girl” to celebrate the dissolution of the boundaries of individual identity: “You could be me and I could be you / Always the same and never the same.”
Her combination of dissonant sturm-und-drang and pop sweetness hits its peak with “Faceshopping” and “Ponyboy.” The sweeping instrumental “Pretending,” which begins as ambient music and slowly gets louder and noisier, suggests a possible future scoring films. Instead of directly confessional songs played on live instruments and sung without Autotune, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides implies that the expression of SOPHIE’s life and aesthetic required distorted and pitch-shifted voices (many coming from collaborator Cecile Believe) and constant shifts of style and mood.
Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides Nonstop Remix Album was first released as part of a 100-edition three-CD set, then dropped on YouTube and finally made available on other streaming and download services. It’s not clear who produced these remixes, and one can surmise that most of it consists of SOPHIE reworking her own music. It more than doubles the length of the original Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, with songs flowing into each other as if they were a DJ set. Many remixes would feel at home on the dancefloor, maintaining a steadier groove than SOPHIE usually constructed, but the format indulges her extremes, letting go of hooks in favor of drift (even on the most dance-oriented songs) and ambience. “Pretending I Give In (Just Let Go)” is the most beautiful song she ever released. The set is most rewarding chopped up into small doses. Although there’s plenty of variety, the 95-minute runtime and multiple versions of the same song can grow tiring.
One SOPHIE song has already been released posthumously: “JSLOIPHNIE,” a collaboration with producer Jlin. During her lifetime and immediately after her death, leaks of unreleased tracks flooded file-sharing sites. She also released several official singles and remixes for other artists, which are still floating around online. Beyond the tragedy of an artist dying at 34, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides suggests that her story had only just begun.