What do you do when things finally start going right? Arlo Parks’ debut album ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ drew from darker passages in her life, finding beauty even in these moments. A relatable voice, the record swept all before it, with Arlo claiming the Mercury Music Prize during an emotional evening.
Now settled into a loving relationship – with fellow musician Ashnikko, no less – she’s moved from a position of self-doubt into relaxed domesticity, and no small degree of success. Follow-up record ‘My Soft Machine’ reacts by asking tough questions, illuminating the most enchanting parts of the palette that fuelled her debut while also injecting fresh – often dissonate – new elements.
Opening piece ‘Bruiseless’ is a scene-setter, a 90 second tone poem that offers a moment of pause before what’s about to follow. ‘Impurities’ – the first song in its more traditional sense – picks up where her debut album left off, but with more of a trip-hop / Bristol feel. The advancement is subtle and nuanced, but its there – this is a record with its own flavour and character.
Indeed, that’s something ‘Devotion’ neatly encapsulates. Beginning as a moment of Arlo purity, it then breaks down into PIXIES esque guitars, with shades of Deftones’ immortal ‘White Pony’ in there, too. Once an alt kid, always an alt kid, it’s a welcome disruption, a severing with the past while also exposing different facets of her creative universe.
That’s not to say that this is a nu-metal album, of course. ‘Blades’ sits on top of those lush 80s synths, a kind of Cameo jammer meets soft spoken word piece. ‘Purple Phase’ is speckled with twilight guitars, while ‘Weightless’ – is a true highlight – is effortlessly beautiful, Arlo’s wisdom spinning back on itself in an act of self-reflection.
While her debut was crafted in a Dalston AirBNB with some close friends, this time round she’s able to work with a little more breathing space, and a few extra guests. Phoebe Bridgers adds her voice to ‘Pegasus’, and it’s enchanting to hear these two wonderful voices on the same song.
A record that often dares to be simple, the album continues with ‘Dog Rose’, an ode to romance and the thrill of falling for someone. “Got me feeling hyper real” she purrs, before vowing that “[I] wanna belong to ya…” it’s direct, flirtatious, and uplifting, taking Arlo’s artistry into a new emotional plane.
‘Puppy’ however is rather more stark, its fusion of live band set up and distorted electronics – Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ is a perennial touchstone – adding more shade to the light of Arlo’s current comfort. There’s a mood switch, though, on ‘I’m Sorry’ – “I know that I haven’t been myself…” she sings, a reminder that the clouds are still there, and the work towards self-advancement never truly stops.
Closing with the full band feel of ‘Room (red wings)’ and the neat trip-hop complexity of ‘Ghost’, this is a record that ably builds on Arlo Parks’ rightly celebrated debut. There’s a trans-Atlanticism at work here, with some sessions taking place in LA, and others at North London’s exquisite studio space the Church. To use an American parlance, she’s faced down the Sophomore Slump – ‘My Soft Machine’ is a triumph, matching the heights of her debut while embracing some unexpected aspects.
Words: Robin Murray