Afterthoughts: SOPHIE live at Royal Festival Hall

Dressed far too comfortably for a SOPHIE gig I eagerly awaited my ticket at the counter of the Southbank, aware that my smart casual, Silicon Valley start-up entrepreneur outfit was not a welcome part of tonight’s aesthetic. The SOPHIE faithful laboured gingerly in their full decadence, PVC clad and UV contoured, sporting a cornucopia of platformed shoes and extra-terrestrial piercings. The Lights dimmed,anticipation took hold.

The adulated and enigmatic producer took to the stage to an expectant crowd at the Royal Festival Hall. Accompanied by New York based dancer and choreographer Easton Blake Payne, SOPHIE brought a performance of high-minded concept, a vibrant light show and emotive, elegant dance amid reworkings of old material and debuts of new material. It seems a change of creative direction and a change of pace were on the cards for SOPHIE’S devout audience at the Southbank.

This set list was made up of slow, ambient versions of songs off of Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-insides and counterpointed with SOPHIE’S previously unreleased, sherbet – sweet, commercially-friendly, new pop music. Tonight’s festivities were not to conform to any expectation or assumption, tonight was going to explore what the Avant-pop, sibylline, experimental producer would offer going forward.

Her vision, reinforced by the vast array of seriously expressive, luminous and plentiful lasers – not to mention the virtuosic Easton Blake Payne’s interpretive dance in 18th century, Dorian Grey inspired attire, was a little different. Emerging from a backdrop of a throbbing, womb-like, green film the dance took centre stage and elegantly portrayed a myopic, pre-life world where SOPHIE’S ambient, minimal soundscapes intertwined and reciprocated with the Dance performance.

The narrative took the audience through millions of years, ranging from a time of organisms and sediment, through to water and the emergence of life and present day, albeit in a fluid, open-ended, obscure way. The central theme was metamorphosis and it was explored through a variety of different sources such as, birth or subtly, geographical metamorphosis of the earth over time.

Alongside these quixotic concepts, the dancing and pyrotechnics where otherworldly and perception altering. The narrative expressively and movingly portrayed through poised and gracious movement sequences. As the music changed gears from ambience to popcorn pop the movements became rigid and defiant, more categorised and rehearsed. The dancing empathically and seamlessly adapted to the difference in mood, interlacing the sonic and visual components in a very human, changing way.

Having a strong interest in her work my expectation of SOPHIE’S performance was that we would hear tracks off of Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-insides and other previous bangers such as ‘Lemonade’ or ‘Bop’. Audiences would have been surprised to get a stark, vast-ranging, open concept through time, ending in a dystopian fantasy tempered with Pop hits. These hits I might add, aren’t instantly recognisable as SOPHIE tracks either. Gone are the plastic, synthetic textures and hard, industrial beats only to be replaced by more mainstream, commercially viable pop with all the clichés and gloopy nostalgia it can muster.

Fans that have been with SOPHIE from her first musical undertakings may have an axe to grind, the new music is very different and will polarise older or more familiar audiences. Previous material always vied with a wide range of musical personas and sonic textures that SOPHIE already frequently pivoted to and from, but the new material shows signs of SOPHIE finding a foothold in a genre.

There may be good reason for this change too, often lionised for being the bridge between avant-garde and the mainstream, she could be coming good on that promise and offering her best mainstream pop bangers. The new material could usher in an era of success for SOPHIE as her pop sensibilities are acute – having worked alongside some of the largest names in pop (Madonna, Charlie XCX). It’s also more than notable she has a strong, devoted following and represents a far too often misrepresented identity as a trans woman and having someone positively portray that could be of high cultural importance. Although for the most part people will just gravitate towards her pristine, hyper realised, pop prestige. Her experience may be of immeasurable value for a generation coming to terms with identity and having a voice that could represent that experience cannot be overstated or ignored.

Words: Matthew O’Hare

Featured Images:  Viktor Frankowski

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