Wednesday, October 11, 2017

album review: 'poppy.computer' by poppy

You know, it's very tempting for me as a YouTuber to start this entire review with a Poppy spoof. The washed out aesthetic and slightly offkilter delivery, full of fragmented non sequiteurs, internet soundbites and memes, the sort of layered satire of pop stars in the age of internet culture directed by Titanic Sinclair which has blown up into something I'd need the next hour to fully deconstruct and explain. To reveal more would be to strip away some of the charm of the original videos which you should all watch, but suffice to say, for the most part, I'm a fan of Poppy as an internet personality.

But I'm not reviewing an internet personality or a meme - I have enough trouble keeping reviews monetized as it is - I'm talking about the music, of which Poppy has touched since the very beginning with covers and eventually original songs that would leverage some of the satire against a technocolor backdrop. And while I've liked her pop music, I've always had my concern that her online persona would overshadow her records, that she wouldn't quite be able to capture the subtle twists and potency of her videos. Now you have to wonder if she'd even bother to try in some cases - around this time last year she released the ambient project 3:36 (Music To Sleep To), and despite certain eerier textures it was far more abstract than her usual content - but it also felt more like a digression, not the blur of k-pop, dance punk, and electronic synthpop I expected we would get on her debut. So okay, what did I find with Poppy.Computer?

Well, pretty much exactly what I expected, as Poppy.Computer is the sort of chiptune-infused, bouncy record that's short and sugary enough to satisfy fans with comfortable material while also delving a bit deeper into some themes that haven't quite been explored as thoroughly in her videos. And while I'm not quite certain it's everything I would want out of a Poppy record - we'll get into this a fair bit more later - as an opening salvo to establish her to a larger audience I'm very satisfied with this.

Of course, to do this effective we need to establish what makes Poppy's satire and commentary work, because a lot of acts have swallowed their own tail pretty quickly chasing down this path - hell, with one single 'Look What You Made Me Do' Taylor Swift managed to fumble spectacularly what Poppy handles with grace and a much more convincing edge. See, without giving too much away from the plot of the videos, Poppy actually seems to enjoy playing the prefabricated pop icon and what it represents in the age of internet fandom, with framing that has taken enough steps back to show plainly exactly all of what that entails. So of course there is a sheen of artifice to everything around Poppy - which with her light cooing, slightly offkilter delivery she seems to know and subtly emphasize - but that sheen can be very easily compromised, and it also encompasses any communication both to and from her. And in the era of slipping human connection and the blurring of online and real life identity - only further intensified by how we seek validation in its modes of communication - it's no surprise why Poppy opens the record on 'I'm Poppy' getting the audience engaged to her world and surrendering unique identity along the way. It's also no surprise that the most panicked song with its jagged guitar chords comes on 'My Microphone', where she can't find the titular device to speak to that audience. It's why the fluttery j-pop touches of 'Moshi Moshi' could easily imply a deeper connection but it feels all too fleeting, and it's how on 'Let's Make A Video' Poppy acknowledges that asserting individual identity only requires the slightest shift outside of a plasticized norm - which is why at least for the first few songs the tones aren't that far removed from modern pop. Skittering hi-hats, keening 80s-inspired synth grooves that split between glossy and eerie, with just enough of a sharper groove to remind me a lot of Grimes' Art Angels.

But where this record gets more interesting comes in Poppy's engagement with others, in both highlighting the vapidity of those connections - and how they can be incredibly lucrative for Poppy as a vessel for messages she only needs to parrot, not understand - but also how they can add a sheen of unreality to everything. 'Bleach Blonde Baby' flat out acknowledges that she only needs to look perfect - her only valued skill in a commercial world - but the more intriguing line is 'you don't even know what to do with me', the truth that when people meet an idealized figure, romantic or otherwise, she's treated more as a prize to be won than a person with which to engage. And outside of her slightly lisping multi-tracking on the hook I liked the track, but what gets more intriguing is when Poppy aims to get a little darker, as the back half of this record does. Sure, we get the garish, blocky technocolor grooves of 'Fuzzy' and 'Computer Boy', but a song like 'My Style' is more chilling with eerie layers of synth piling in to intensify Charlotte's voice saying how Poppy can be very much a tool and projection of whatever you want her to be. And yet Poppy herself highlights the symbiotic push-and-pull of that on 'Interweb' - in a world that feels increasingly smaller, she's now pulling more strings. It's one of the few darker moments on this record instrumentally, and if I was to criticize the blocky but effective chiptune grooves on this record, it'd be that it could probably aim to pick up a little more of the massive, ethereal but unnerving ambient tones that drove her previous project and sit behind a lot of her videos, if only to subtly crank up the existential horror and further distinguish her tones from a sound that, again, Grimes arguably executed more effectively if less consistently. Hell, it's one reason I actually like the slightly atonal side of 'Software Upgrade', dumping the anonymous, interchangeable masses where the satisfaction for both Poppy and that audience feels increasingly flimsy. Hell, it'd be easy to expect Poppy to break free of the system altogether, but the final track 'Pop Music' actually takes a different tactic: a primarily acoustic, glittery ballad where she sings its egalitarian praises, for sounds that can speak across the human experience. And sure, she knows its constructed and that chasing it is shamelessly commercial, but it has the potential at its best to be transcendent, and there's a certain value and magic to that. Again, this is where the more distant framing is essential, showing both enough to damn pop, but also to praise it.

And at the end of the day, I'm happy Poppy made this project. It's a bit of an odd and garish listen, for sure, and parts I definitely feel are underwritten, or that Poppy could have used thicker backing vocals for her harmonies or a shade more darkness or bombast, but that can come on the sophomore project. As it is, this is a light 8/10 from me and a recommendation, especially if you're already a fan of her videos. Otherwise... well, if you're looking for a ideal starting point, this is a quick, relentlessly catchy and plenty intriguing listen. I definitely see you, Poppy, and my message... well, you already know, don't you?

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