By committing to chaos in itself, Poppy captures a spirit of play, a sense that anything is possible.
Poppy has realized what noise-bubblegum fusion experimental popsters have been seeking for over a decade. The Los Angeles singer-songwriter’s new album, I Disagree, out since January, bristles with sonic irritants: metal riffs, industrial crunches, death growls, and screeching dissonances, balanced and destabilized by sweet melodies and synthesizer confetti. To call it a synthesis would suggest craft when she’s really just throwing ingredients in an open blender and letting everything splatter the kitchen.
Since Poppy had previously specialized in sententious middlebrow social commentary, her embrace of death metal is a marvelous surprise. A YouTube personality and master of multimedia publicity stunts, she signaled the logical end of the PC Music strain of conceptual metapop, in which dinky EDM-derived hooks create a glassy, somewhat sickly electronic surface while recycled, pseudo-Warholian ideas about fame and fashion sink under the weight of their own self-referentiality. Her themes — technology, plasticity, artificiality — added up to either an ironic vacuum signifying nothing or a total denunciation of modern life. Her second album, Am I a Girl? (2018), which sufficiently muddled the theme of gender nonconformism — making it impossible to tell whether she intended a celebration or merely another blank conceptual gesture — was especially precious.
By introducing guitar noise and shock horror, I Disagree seems a desperate novelty move, but it doesn’t matter. Her invocation of blood, fangs, cannibalism, and other monstrosities are not platitudes about the hollow decadence of our society, and even if they were, the music’s dense roar would drown them out. These songs are so information-rich, so choked with competing stimuli, that the quantity overwhelms the ideas themselves.
I Disagree slashes and whomps, lurching between comic extremes. Essentially, this music combines two recent, recognizable pop tendencies: Billie Eilish’s camp horror and the juxtaposition of loud guitars and pop cutesiness that traces back a decade, to Babymetal and Sleigh Bells. The whirlwind energy, in which tempo changes and explosive segues convey a deep juvenile impatience, is Poppy’s own. Lacking the spareness and coherence of their rock antecedents, these songs thrash about in every direction, never settling on a consistent beat; spikes and dirt spill over precisely defined pop edges.
The opener, “Concrete,” starts things off violently. First, Poppy whispers a series of creepy masochistic commands over an air-raid siren; then, there’s an eruption of distorted, theatrical shredding, like a parody of power metal’s guitar heroics, and the noise begins. Just as quickly, the song slows down for a candy-pop interlude, as sugary harpsichord chimes complement her singsong: “I tried to eat ice cream, I tried to drink tea/but I need the taste of young blood in my teeth.” Tasty!
“Anything Like Me” twitches over a spidery keyboard progression whose final note is punctuated by guitar shrieks. Sometimes the power chords interrupt Poppy’s spoken monotone, too: for example, “If this is a test, with all due respect/you’re not gonna fool no [BOOM]” (it’s clear that the missing word is “one”).
“Bloodmoney” exhibits her best hardcore scream; when she howls “Keep telling yourself that you’ve been playing nice and go beg for forgiveness from Jesus the Christ! Beg for forgiveness from Jesus the Christ!” she reaches a singular level of righteous fury. Although pure maximalist sensationalism is Poppy’s mode, these songs work as songs too, especially “Bite Your Teeth,” a depiction of harrowing anxiety in which Poppy repeatedly whispers “Don’t cry, just bite your own teeth,” as the guitars thunder.
I Disagree resembles Grimes’s recent Miss Anthropocene, a similar turn toward gothic kitsch by another artist who has delighted in the pop/noise continuum. The contrast between these albums is revealing, since Grimes, whose mock pop songs were once terrifying and marvelous, has devolved toward the arch social commentary Poppy has outgrown. Billed as a fantasy saga about “an anthropomorphic goddess of climate change,” Miss Anthropocene ironically celebrates the eventual extinction of human life.
As with Poppy, the question isn’t whether such a vision is rendered coherently or politically palatable (it’s not!), but whether the pretension enables or inhibits musical drama and absurdity, and the apparent complexity of her ideas does encourage a certain sonic murkiness; Grimes’s stylistic hallmarks seem chosen less for aesthetic coherence than for how each ingredient contributes to a vague, content-free aura of futurist innovation.
I Disagree is just as incoherent; Poppy’s musical ingredients are meant not to mesh, but to be maximally irritating. There’s less of an overt message than on Miss Anthropocene, but the emotions — frustration, rage, impatience, delight in mess — emerge more clearly. Such are the rewards of a mischievous sensibility: by committing to chaos in itself, Poppy captures a spirit of play, a sense that anything is possible. The excitement lies in guessing which way the music will hurtle, whether a gleaming synthesizer hook will mutate into an industrial machine gnashing its teeth or a preening guitar solo or a jittery dance beat; whether Poppy’s goosebump-inducing whispers will become wailing and horrible, or lilting and honeyed.
While everyone copes differently, to me Poppy’s formal strategy also seems a sensible response to the eventual extinction of human life. If there’s no reason to conserve energy anymore, let it all out! “Sick of the Sun,” a strummed guitar ballad, imagines an uninhabitable, ozone-free environment (“I’m sick of the sun/it burns everyone/I want it to go away,” Poppy sings forlornly), yet it could also be a standard goth-emo expression of agoraphobia.
The closer, “Don’t Go Outside,” takes place during an apocalyptic event. It is a plea to the general public to stay inside, go to bed, and sleep through the destruction. The song cycles through a series of discrete, seemingly random symphonic sections — soothing guitar plucking is broken up by a squiggly keyboard solo, then settles back into a slower, squelchier verse that is interrupted by showboating guitar scales; for the grand finale, Poppy overdubs her own voice into an echoey chorus. It has a stately, ostentatious quality, like a ritual performed when albums end and doomsdays begin. “Burn it to the ground/we’ll be safe and sound,” she sighs. Yet the final line is hopeful: “You can be anyone you want to be.”
There are limitations to this music, whose polymorphous qualities can exhaust. The songs are too hyperactive to be catchy, leaving you in a dehydrated daze. But when rage strikes, I Disagree is as cleansing and satisfying as a good scream.