Maybe we can save the world
One of the most compelling stories in the pop culture world in recent years has to be the emergence of the enigmatic Poppy. Having built up an odd, often disconcerting series of brief YouTube videos, Poppy eventually shifted gears to begin releasing music and making live appearances.
Working with musician and film director Titanic Sinclair, these music outings took nods from the likes of J-pop and vaporwave, the culmination of which resulted in the release of Poppy.Computer in 2017. As an album, it boasted some surprisingly effective tunes, while playing around with a fairly simple electronic sound palette.
Since then, Poppy has been delving into some other areas of the broad world of electronic music, including the work of synth-pop pioneer Gary Numan. In July she released a particularly crunchy cover version of Numan’s ‘Metal’ as a single, suggesting that Poppy was leaning in towards more of a classic synth sound for her new album.
In fact, new album Am I a Girl? adopts a move towards a more contemporary pop profile. It still deals with a lot of the themes and ideas that have been part of Poppy’s world since her early videos, including commentary on pop culture, technology and gender – and in particular blurring the lines between machines and humans. But it’s all drawn on a canvas that seems to slot easily into the mainstream pop approaches that have served the likes of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga so well.
Along the way, Poppy’s on-the-nose humour occasionally surfaces on tracks such as ‘Chic Chick’ (“I’m a chic chick/if you don’t like it suck my dick”) and ‘Girls In Bikinis’ (“I want to see boys in bikinis too/they’d look good on you”). Yet there’s also room for more surreal moments, such as the brief ‘Interlude 1’ which simply features a repeating phrase of “I’m Poppy” over a machine-like rhythm.
There’s a breezy beauty to tracks such as ‘Iconic’ and a whimsical aspect wheeled out on the likes of ‘In a Minute’, which plays around with the faux naivety that’s been part of Poppy’s profile since day one.
Having signed up to Diplo’s Mad Decent label, it also only seemed a matter of time before the pair collaborated. In this case, it’s on the excellent ‘Time Is Up’, a euphoric pop banger that’s packed with hooks and tweaked vocals that rotate around a killer chorus. Its inspiration appears to be drawn from fears of AI and the rise of robots, judging by comments Poppy has made previously. It’s also a tune that plays around with those familiar self-referential themes of Poppy being an actual manufactured pop star (“In the factory/in the sterile place where they made me”).
This continues on ‘The Rapture Ball’, whose mesmeric pop and bassy beats craft a surprisingly effective tune that seems a million miles away from the simple chiptune pop evident on Poppy’s earlier material.
For this album, Poppy also collaborated with Grimes for one of the album’s best moments, which is revealed on ‘Play Destroy’. The track’s Nine Inch Nails-style guitars play an intriguing contrast against the baroque pop of the vocal elements. Line such as “Manipulate the girls/Indoctrinate the boys” are dripping with the attitude that made the tracks on Grimes’ Art Angels album such a satisfying listen (Apparently this collaboration wasn’t quite the smooth experience that one might expect, with there being a war of words after the fact).
This heavier guitar-driven approach is continued on ‘X’ which, as with ‘Play Destroy’, alternates between raw metal-infused segments and contrasting pastel pop moments (“Maybe we can save the world/from every evil boy and dangerous girl”).
In some respects, 2018 hasn’t been a completely smooth year for Poppy. Aside from the bunfight with Grimes, there was also an ongoing (now settled) legal action that dogged the musician. As ever, these types of drama have polarised opinion. Yet Poppy’s musical ascension has continued regardless.
Am I a Girl? Is a much more polished effort than 2017’s Poppy.Computer. The compositions here are busier, beefier affairs and there’s some impressive tentpole bangers that should help to move Poppy onto a bigger stage and a broader audience.