It’s likely a blessing and a curse to receive so much critical attention for your first album release. In 2021, Arlo Parks was on just about every playlist and music magazine cover, while being named the AIM Independent Music Awards “One to Watch”. Her singles dazzled fans and critics alike.
Yet the release of Collapsed in Sunbeams in 2021 did not, for me at least, live up to the anticipation. It showcased an artist with remarkable talent still finding their stride as a songwriter. Parks’ trademark lyricism felt weighed down with too many friends’ names and awkward pop culture references. The production by Gianluca Buccellati felt unnecessarily edgy and aggressive.
Today, two years later, Arlo Parks returns, with My Soft Machine. Instead of Caroline and Charlie, she sings more directly about her own experience. There are still a lot of pop culture references (from Juliette Binoche to Clare Danes) but they feel less out of place here. No longer a voyeur, Parks finds immediacy in painting vignettes that cut out the middle man and are more explicit with emotion.
The production of the album supports this, choosing a soft but lush tone that lends itself to Parks’ vocals and the trip-hop beats that carry them. The album at large basks in ambiance. It’s a quality that lulls the listener into its groove while Park’s relentlessly poignant and conflicted sense of lyricism challenges the ear.
My Soft Machine (like its predecessor) opens with a poem set to music. “Bruiseless” reminds us that this is not pop and that we should be prepared to explore Parks’ themes with a sense of complexity and playfulness. No line sums it up better than “[I feel] like a peony ripped on the chain of a dirt bike”.
“Impurities” invites us in with its catchy trip beat that channels Japanese lo-fi. “Don’t hide the bruise /when you know I’m watching babe” is the mantra here. It’s an invitation towards vulnerability, that feeling of being seen with all your flaws which allows you to experience a new sense of wholeness and love.
That experience glides right into the third track “Devotion”. This might be the album’s strongest song sonically. The bass rumbles below the track, like a dirt bike, ready to take off. It opens up to a final chorus that is effortlessly catchy and anthemic. “I’m all yours baby!”
Later in the album, “Weightless” (the album’s first single) departs from the excitement of vulnerability to paint a picture of a withholding partner. “There are sandflies in the champagne / You’re closed off, I’m so drained.” The lyrics tied to the song’s steady beat, fight against the feeling of slow ruin that creeps in with each line. It’s the rhythm of someone unwilling to let go. “I don’t wanna wait for you / but I need you so I won’t go”.
“Pegasus” (feat. Phoebe Bridgers) is a remarkable song that showcases the album perfectly. It’s syrupy sweet, with overwhelmingly beautiful verse lines that speak towards love that feels open and healing. It’s what Parks’ is after. There’s a charming sense of hope she carries in her music. Unlike many of their indie counterparts, Parks’ seems to seek the silver line in moments of even the most painful reality. The naiveté that love can make us feel is not derided or viewed through a cynical lens. It’s celebrated. It’s a stunning track, you’ll find yourself falling back into again and again.
At times the songs in My Soft Machine can feel repetitive. Verses paint vignettes and then open up into a mantra that is repeated three or four times for a chorus. Parks’ lyricism is so unique and poignant that it makes up for a structure that feels overused by the album’s end. On their own, these are still excellent songs, yet all together they start to feel a bit formulaic, especially by the album’s end.
Overall, My Soft Machine is a tenacious exploration of affection. It finds Arlo Parks more in her element, supported by a luscious production that will have its listener falling back into its groove again and again. It’s a remarkable step forward for an artist with an eloquent and unique voice.