Arlo Parks inadvertently became the voice of mid-pandemic malaise. Her song ‘Black Dog’, released in May 2020, was a candid and devastating portrait of depression, her feather-light voice promising to “lick the grief right off your lips”. In early 2021, it would feature on ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’, the 22-year-old’s Mercury Prize-winning album, which NME called “a universal collection of stories that’ll provide solace for listeners of all ages and backgrounds.”
It was a time-capsule record, one where Parks’ knack for hyper-specific moments, shining light on her own life and emotions, and mirroring those of its listeners. ‘My Soft Machine’, the follow-up record, is indebted to similar topics: trauma, mental wellbeing and mindfulness.
Often on ‘My Soft Machine’ there’s moments of real wonder, ones that are incredibly affecting, even if Parks’ delivery is subtle. On ‘Bruiseless’, she speaks of “everyone that I love has been abused”, herself included; on ‘Impurities’, the record’s best song, she sighs the type of spectacular line that’ll ring around your head for days: “Piling in the Escalade, my chest is buzzing like a bluebird caged”. It’s often not how Parks says it, but the depth of emotion and meaning of the words that tumble out of her; ‘My Soft Machine’ leaves no doubts of her talent as a songwriter, or the deftness of her phrases and structures.
Given the weightlessness of Parks’ voice, there’s sometimes a struggle on how best to frame it. Her debut favoured lo-fi guitar and beat combos for anchorage, but ‘My Soft Machine’, occasionally, takes more risks. On ‘Devotion’, there’s real vim in spirited guitar breakdown, and ‘Dog Rose’ shares the haunting soundscapes as Fontaines D.C.’s ‘Skinty Fia’, a record she’s earmarked as a key inspiration. ‘I’m Sorry’ and ‘Purple Phase’ have a whiff of Khruangbin about them.
A ‘difficult second’ album this is not, but the big set-pieces are left wanting. ‘Pegasus’ continues Phoebe Bridgers’ run of barely-there cameos, her voice ceding behind Parks’, rather than elevating it, while the choruses of ‘Blades’ and ‘Weightless’ lack the spark of her spritely, catchy single ‘Softly’, which feels notable by its omission. Regardless, there’s ample to consider, decode and treasure from an artist who consistently makes poring over the lyric sheet line-by-line as much fun as the finished product.
- Release date: May 26, 2023
- Record label: Transgressive