Canadian producer Tristan Douglas had been using ASMR videos as a sleep aid for several months when he came across the video sampled in "Sublingual." It's of "a popular ASMR YouTuber" announcing a plan to include sponsored ads in her videos. Disturbed, he unsubscribed from the channel. But the incident stayed with him, and even if you didn't know the story, you could guess that something like it is behind his latest album. It's called Sponsored Content, and it opens with a track called "Disable Ad Blocker": a slow crescendo cut with brand slogans and a voice whispering the title as if it's a hypnotic command. Later, "ICU" opens with a downpitched pop or R&B sample—"I've got my eyes on you ... You're everything, you're everything... I see you"—and ends with wailing sirens and the ominous thud of helicopter blades.
You get the message: that our consumerist utopia of targeted ads and ever-subtler brand placement is actually sinister as hell. But it often feels a bit too easy. Sometimes the album slips into self-parody, as on "Commodity Fetish Mode," where a sad android voice asks, "What is technology? What can it do?," followed by a melancholic trap beat with glitchy edits. Elsewhere the arch concept undermines the power of the music, as when another ad spot disrupts the serene post-human ambient of "FIJI Water," or in the recurring appearances from Mark Zuckerberg, slurring his way through an anecdote about teaching kids to code.
Douglas has noticed these shortcomings. Sponsored Content was made during a "challenging year," and he acknowledges that the ad concept was a kind of "veil" he could hide behind; a conceit that put ironic distance between him and the emotions latent in the music. But he decided to keep the concept anyway, and the results work on an unexpected third level. Only the banging "The New Industry" replays the club pyrotechnics of last year's Virtuous.scr. Elsewhere that album's clean, cartoonish lines give way to unstabler forms, volatile cocktails of pop song, hi-def FX and surreal sampladelia, in which multiple moods and levels of meaning seem to be fighting for attention. The closest analogue might be Hollywood trailers: a fragmented form, trading in suspense, mystery and ambiguity.
As the album progresses, a clearer feel does emerge. "Derealization"—named for a symptom of many severe mental disorders—sweeps away the archness entirely, leaving sombre string chords in a howling tundra. "Don't Go"—is the title a plea, and to whom?—is weepy ambient with a celestial climax. But just as we're settling into this mode, the closing track shakes things up again. "Human" is a schmaltzy piano ballad for a vocaloid singer whose acrobatic leaps would make the diva from The Fifth Element blush. It's absurd, in other words, and weirdly fascinating.