On her debut album, Arlo Parks showcased a style of lyricism that felt to many like a wise and kindly friend. Released in the uncertainty of the pandemic, ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams‘ was a talisman to the kind of young people who hang onto their AQA poetry anthologies long after the exam is over, who spend their weekends dreaming and writing journals, who make their friends mixtapes and care packages and who say ‘no worries if not’ more than they should. It was this intimate alchemy which made Parks a beloved leader of the Super Sad Generation, a close-magic storyteller who seemed to know exactly how we all felt.
This time around, her pop-culture ponderings on the lives of her friends have been broadly swapped out in favour of introspection, teetering between the sanctity of a settled relationship and the fear that no feeling this good could possibly last forever. Expanding her trademark use of metaphor, the lyrics feel a little looser, rooted in general emotions as readily as they are specific discussions of what she sees, smells and hears.
As a result, it’s a record that offers noticeable room for the listener to burrow in and find their own meaning. Featuring guest vocals from the perpetually in-demand Phoebe Bridgers, ‘Pegasus’ is a lovely depiction of how it feels to “feel elated when you hold me”, while ‘Purple Phase’ takes things darker, checking in on a friend who is “Terrified of turning 24, wet-eyed paranoid… try to flush her pills and get support.” Parks is as stoic a friend as ever, but something in its faintly detached chorus suggests that she is starting to realise that some responsibilities are bigger than what she can solely take on. After all, she is also contending with her own pain; ‘I’m Sorry’ is seemingly linked to the burnout that halted her North American tour in early 2022. “I been working incessantly / like a wasp, feeling trapped and crazed” she softly raps. The perils-of-being-famous song can be a difficult one to pull off, but as always, she delivers her truth with heart and candour, creating something to which most of us can at least partially relate.
The sonics have gently shifted too. ‘Impurities’ borrows tiny flourishes of melodic inspiration from the time that she spent in Japan, while ‘Puppy’ (an album highlight), dances around her love of Frank Ocean-style hip-hop, similar in some ways to the lo-fi cool of ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ track ‘Blueish’. For fans who were especially drawn to her sadder offerings, the peppy likes of ‘Dog Rose’ or the electro-guitar of ‘Devotion’ might feel jarring at first, sparking concern that Parks loses something of her individuality when she takes on bolder indie sounds. This take is valid, but also offers something to interrogate about our tendency to trap artists within certain tropes, the ‘sad girl’ narrative that has thrived in recent years but may well feel more like a limitation than an emblem of praise. For that reason alone, it’s good to see her break out, to expand her palette in ways that don’t feel overly radical but are a natural byproduct of growing up and taking stock of where she’s at. ‘My Soft Machine’ doesn’t totally reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t need to; in a world abuzz with chaos, it’s a joy to see Arlo Parks finding her own gentle hum.
Buy ‘My Soft Machine’ on vinyl