Album Review: Poppy – Flux

[Sumerian; 2021]

When Jennifer’s Body dropped in cinemas one week after Halloween 2009, the movie was immediately ill-received by the press and audiences alike. Besides a handful of good reviews – notably one by Roger Ebert – the film went on to receive a savage cinemascore of C- and a Razzie nomination for Megan Fox as worst actress, based on the bizarre argument that her acting suggested she took her role as man-eating succubus demon ‘seriously’. Most seemed to miss that the film was an intentional throwback to the campy late 90s style of American genre filmmaking in the line of The Faculty, The Craft and U-Turn, using the supernatural slasher plot to explore the complicated and traumatizing realities of growing up as a young woman. While Jennifer’s Body has seen somewhat of a re-assessment in recent years, now being considered a relevant cult classic of feminist millennial cinema, its initial critical failure is a good example of how female-centric pop art is often misunderstood or ignored by industry gatekeepers.

The idea that women in media are ‘industry plants’ and that their art remained at the core consumerist product with little genuine value can be traced in music as well. Looking back at the 90s, one of 20th century’s most vibrant eras, critics seem to have mostly forgotten that, for the most part, women dominated alternative and mainstream pop alike. Even with acts like Veruca Salt, No Doubt, and Shakespeare Sisters releasing worldwide hits and influencing an immeasurable number of younger artists, they rarely feature in discussion of the era – besides curious mention of their biggest song and the iconic status of their front-women. Because of that, there’s a somewhat secret history to the 90s mainstream that critics evade, represented by a wide array of groups and releases present on then-contemporary soundtracks and mixtapes, their posters found in moving boxes and their CDs forgotten in old basements.

It’s the spirit and style of those acts that the sensational Poppy – aka Moriah Rose Pereira – has emulated on her new album, Flux. Yet, the record isn’t a stone cold nostalgia trip: the first without any credit to former (now supposedly disgraced) collaborator Titanic Sinclair, Flux functions as a vibrant statement of Pereira’s personal liberation and artistic emancipation.

One aspect of that is her split from Sinclair, which various songs seem to directly address.  “Her”, which she wrote in 2019, can be directly interpreted as a retelling of the working and personal relationship between the two: “Give her a face / Give her a name / That isn’t hers / Then make her yours / Say she’s adored / Call her a whore / Then pick her up / Throw her on the floor.“ It’s harsh stuff that directly correlates to experiences with Sinclair she detailed in an open letter, and aesthetically situates the song next to the punky grunge meditations on fame and masculine toxicity of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” and that dog.’s “Never Say Never”.

“Hysteria” – recorded when the album was considered finished – chronicles a fit of violent rage, which the narrator blames on the titular disorder: “I didn’t mean to scare ya / It’s just my hysteria / I didn’t mean to do you no harm / Didn’t mean to hit you so hard.” Pereira’s choice of singing those words in a sweet, fragile tone directly contrasts the content and renders the track as a mixture of Garbage and Breeders. The girly “La-la lalala-la” bridge especially invokes Kim Deal’s attitude. This high school pop vibe returns on “So Mean”, a cleaned up punk track, somewhere between the power pop of The Muffs and Shampoo, whose chorus has immeasurable singalong quality.

But it’s not just female songwriters Poppy was inspired by: some of it invokes the style of Sumerian Records label-colleague Billy Corgan. “On the Level”, which makes perfect use of distorted guitars and fuzz pedals, could be a Pumpkins track from anywhere between ’93 and ’98,  while the lead riff of the percussion-heavy “Bloom” is a direct reference to “Cherub Rock” – an incredibly gutsy move. These tracks perfectly showcase the dichotomy at the heart of Flux, which also reflects the tension between sugary sweet appeal of the pop-nymph Poppy and the heavy, unhinged grunge interests of Pereira.

The album’s dual opening salvo manifests Pereira at her heaviest. Following in the grungy footsteps of predecessor I Disagree and embracing Garbage influences, “Flux” has Poppy explore the full range of her voice, going from dreamy high-pitched verses all the way to all out scream-singing. Following track “Lessen the Damage”, which could pass as a Letters to Cleo or The Donnas cut, is a muscular no-holds barred punk assault.

In total contrast to that, the album’s last two tracks embrace shoegaze and dream pop, seemingly representing the more ethereal persona of Poppy. While the closer “Never Find My Way” sounds like the definitive futuristic rock song Grimes has now attempted (and failed) to write ever since Visions, “As Strange As It Seems” fully embraces the feedback-driven 50s sound of The Jesus & Mary Chain and the mysterious mantras of My Bloody Valentine. As logical as Poppy doing a shoegaze track might seem on paper, the outcome still exceeds all expectations: on an album of memorable tracks that could all function as hit singles, it’s the most emotionally resonant.

Flux is the most direct and unfiltered of Pereira’s projects so far. Where her instrumental ambient and noise albums functioned as sonic experimentation with acoustic tapestries, her pop records have explored viral aspects of cultural cosplay, and I Disagree saw her playfully weave medleys that presented nu-metal crossovers with Japanese city pop and 60s psychedelia. By presenting hybrids of L7 and Sixpence None the Richer, Flux manages to highlight to the forgotten influence women had on rock and pop in the 90s and smash the artificially constructed idea of Poppy as a pop-puppet.

The strings have been cut, both symbolically and aesthetically. There’s no need for the creative baggage of cultural cosplay and overtly complicated prog puzzles. As good as Poppy’s previous work was, this is a whole new level. In a summer that has been rich in pop albums that embrace rock semantics to present emotional growth (like the great releases by Halsey and Lil Nas X) and an era of elevated 90s and grunge nostalgia, it’s the best of its genre and beyond.