To describe the moving parts at work in Christina Aguilera’s “Deserve” and in Sophie’s “It’s Okay to Cry” — both are tracks from new pop albums released Friday — is to make these two songs sound like comparable aesthetic experiences.
Which indeed they are, at least when heard in a vacuum: Listening to either tune, you feel the vocalist’s journey, her climb from melancholy to euphoria, in the slow build of the melody and the gathering intensity of the drums.
But who on Earth listens in a vacuum?
As Kanye West has made plenty clear over the last few weeks — first with a stretch of increasingly out-there behavior, then with a pair of records largely about his provocations — pop music is consumed these days as part of an endless content stream that also includes an artist’s tweets and interviews and Instagram posts and appearances on TMZ.
More than ever, what we know about a creator before we hear a song determines how we hear it.
That’s the condition Aguilera happily embraces on “Liberation,” the superstar’s first album in six years and one that depends almost entirely on our familiarity with her story. It’s also the condition that Sophie rejects on “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides,” the debut studio full-length by this willfully mysterious British singer and producer now based in Los Angeles.
Both albums utilize the textures and strategies of modern pop but to strikingly different ends.
For Aguilera, “Liberation’s” title and cover photo (featuring her apparently makeup-less face) are meant to prepare us for a woman relishing her hard-won freedom after quitting what she’s described as a long and stifling gig as a coach on “The Voice.”
The presentation self-consciously calls back to “Stripped,” Aguilera’s 2002 album on which she made a show of dialing down the teen-pop sparkle that first defined her.
Yet the production is painstakingly up to date (and far more elaborate than it’s letting on) in songs such as “Like I Do,” a throbbing R&B cut with a soulful beat from Anderson .Paak, and the appealingly hectic “Accelerate,” which Aguilera made with a crew of hip-hop heavyweights including West, 2 Chainz and Ty Dolla Sign.
“Deserve” was co-written by Julia Michaels, who helped create hits for Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber before breaking out on her own last year with “Issues”; “Fall in Line” pairs Aguilera with Demi Lovato for a tumultuous duet over trembling film-score strings.
Even at its busiest, though, the music emphasizes Aguilera’s powerful voice, which more than anything is what separates her from the younger stars whose popularity has eclipsed hers in recent years. She runs through the full gamut of moods, from flirty to depressed to joyful to furious — each a response, or so we’ve been trained to think, to some real-life situation.
“You do not owe them your body and your soul,” Aguilera tells an audience of “little girls” in “Fall in Line,” and what gives the song its heft is our certainty that she’s fended off those who’ve tried to take hers.
Sophie, on the other hand, relies on no such context on “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides,” which follows a string of critically acclaimed singles as well as behind-the-scenes production work for the likes of Madonna and Vince Staples.
Since she first emerged five years ago, Sophie has worked hard to limit what we know about her; early interviews, some conducted over email, even referred to her as a man, a misunderstanding she’s never appeared eager to clear up.
Perhaps that’s because Sophie is uncomfortable with celebrity. But her album suggests that the obfuscation is actually central to her artistic project, which is to make pop with all the emotional impact of someone like Aguilera, minus the type of multimedia personal narrative we’ve grown accustomed to.
As with “Liberation,” Sophie’s songs brandish catchy melodies and precisely tooled grooves — though she definitely goes further than Aguilera in tracks like “Ponyboy,” with a harsh beat that conjures smashed glass, or “Whole New World/Pretend World,” which stretches past the nine-minute mark.
And the singing draws on some of the same traditions that Aguilera does, with lots of throaty murmuring and ecstatic diva wailing. (Are all the vocals we hear on “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” actually Sophie’s? It’s typically unclear — a spokesperson for the artist said she couldn’t provide credits for the album.)
Yet the lyrics favor abstract concepts over intimate confessions; Sophie ponders consumerism in “Faceshopping” (“My face is the front of shop / My face is the real shop front”) and the power dynamics of sex in “Ponyboy.”
Then there’s “Immaterial,” which feels like the key to apprehending this fascinating album.
“Without my legs or my hair / Without my genes or my blood,” the singer chirps over a perky electronic arrangement, “With no name and with no type of story / Where do I live? / Tell me, where do I exist?”
What’s thrilling about the song is that we don’t have an answer.
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