Few artists feel as much like a warm hug as Arlo Parks. The sensation of being embraced by a loved one can never be truly replicated by music; however, Parks comes as close as possible. The 22-year-old artist returns for her second album, following up on her decorated debut Collapsed In Sunbeams, which won the hearts of critics and fans alike. With a breath-taking knack for emotional detail, Arlo Parks strikes gold twice on My Soft Machine. She develops her delicate and thoughtful sound into places familiar to the listener, and some places completely unexpected.
The title comes from the Joanna Hogg film The Souvenir, where a film teacher explains why people watch films; “we don’t want to see life as it is played out, we want to see life as it is experienced in this soft machine.” My Soft Machine acts in a similar fashion; the characters, emotions and situations Parks mulls over are all elements we can identify in our own lives. Arlo Parks has always had unparalleled vision for beauty and encourages the listener to embrace their realities without judgement.
Beginning with the sound of a tape deck on spoken word track ‘Bruiseless’, the framing of the record creates a nostalgic, hazy energy from the opening seconds to the fading moments of final track ‘Ghost’. The twists and turns the album takes between the beginning and the end are compelling and challenging, yet never undulating or uncomfortable. Parks not only invites you into her world of honesty, but embraces you like an old friend that understands you and your humanity.
The most significant departure from expectation for Arlo Parks comes on third track ‘Devotion’. Eagle-eared listeners are certain to be attuned to the foreshadowing by Parks, name-dropping Deftones in the second line, as it increasingly begins to echo hard-rock, until it fully plunges into crashing cymbals and distorted guitars. The punch of Deftones tracks like ‘Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)’ is fused with Parks delicate delivery, creating a remarkable song subversive of expectations. Film references are also dotted across the album, with Claire Danes in Romeo + Juliet name-dropped in the syncopated ‘Blades’.
This gear change is surprising from the artist that delivered the heart-wrenching ‘Black Dog’ in 2020, yet it authentically feels like Arlo Parks’ vision. She is an artist in flow, and her inspirations reach from far and wide. Parks possesses the haunting magnetism of Arthur Russell under timeless instrumentals, ranging from disco on ‘Blades’ to a dance drum loop dialled down over airy sounds on ‘Pegasus’, featuring Phoebe Bridgers.
Parks’ ability to change between her singing voice and her spoken-word flow is one of the key strengths of My Soft Machine. Showcased previously with effortlessness on Collapsed In Sunbeams’ ‘Portra 400’, Parks lets her flow almost get away from her. She echoes the wordplay dexterity of Nas, in a context entrenched in beauty . The end of the verse and the chorus overlaps in the bridge of ‘Blades’, her thoughts like droplets running off the petals of a blooming flower, and bringing an inevitable and warm smile to your face.
Parks’ hooks are often brutal, but always ring true. “I know some things don’t get easier / I know some things hurt forever”, she muses on ‘Puppy’. “I’m sorry / it’s easier to be numb” is the reverberating phrase on ‘I’m Sorry’. For anyone that has suffered with anxiety or depression, or ever loved someone that has, Arlo Parks’ music will bring solace.
The honesty and sincerity from Parks’ observations and details on My Soft Machine are like rays of sunshine on an overcast day; each feels special and sacred. My Soft Machine is a space that refutes cynicism, and rewards acceptance. Parks is not one to rest on her laurels, and this is the next step in what can only be a beautiful career. If you can just let go, Parks will embrace your impurities, and encourage you do the same.