With her second LP, My Soft Machine, Arlo Parks mines the mainstream-pop and R&B-leaning aspects of her Mercury Prize-winning debut, 2021’s Collapsed in Sunbeams. Lyrically, she offers portraits of relationships, alternately Edenic and flawed, spotlighting how the world robs us of our inherent godliness. Though buoyed by Parks’ sense of resilience and desire for authentic union with a partner, the album is over-reliant on predictable sonics and vague melodies, frequently drifting into a cumulative indistinctness.
“I wish I was bruiseless,” Parks declares on the opening track, striking a pleasant sprechgesang while bemoaning the realities of Christian and capitalistic conditioning. Synthy swirls reference vintage Muzak as much as Portishead lite. Meanwhile, “Impurities” shows Parks invoking a prelapsarian (pre-“bruised”) state, pointing to those moments when low self-esteem and destructive self-talk temporarily drop away (“I radiate like a star”). Parks’ beats and shimmery synth parts are ably collaged, though the mix lands as an all-too-familiar R&B backdrop. Her melody, too, is initially enticing but fails to gain traction.
Overall, Machine seems compromised by the peculiar absence of Gianluca Buccellati, who co-wrote and produced the majority of Sunbeams. Though primarily written prior to 2021, Machine’s tracks lack the hook-focused charisma of Sunbeams’ best songs, including “Hurt” and the unshakeable “Hope”. In terms of production approaches, Machine’s treatments, handled varyingly by Parks, Romil Hemnami, Al Hug, Baird, Paul Epworth, Ariel Rechtshaid, and Buddy Ross, lack the inventive folk, lounge-jazz, and trip-hop textures that informed Sunbeams’ multifaceted aesthetic.
That said, Parks finds glory in “Blades”, her verses built around truncated yet supple phrases, the lines of her chorus nomadic and ethereal. A funky guitar lick recurs throughout the track, giving the piece an upbeat dancey feel. Lyrically, Parks makes use of snapshots that engage multiple senses (“Talking for hours on the gravel letting our backs burn”, “You laugh the same hand on mouth / ‘Cause you hate your teeth and I love your teeth”). The result is a fertile soundscape that undergirds and frames a loose narrative and series of verbal triggers, Parks addressing the archetypal themes of friendship, love, and loyalty.
Parks’ Rorschach descriptions of “Purple Phase” conjure a cross between Dr. Seuss and André Breton (“iridescent charming cats down from trees”, “Mugler aviators hiding eyes that laugh when concealed”). While her melody and a spacey guitar part interweave intriguingly, Parks’ vocal is dedramatized by a varnished mix, what could be an edgy psychedelic foray drifting into easy-listening territory. On “Pegasus”, Parks again navigates a watery soundscape. Guest Phoebe Bridgers flits in and out of the tune, adding contrast and depth. The two voices, casually blended, unfurl dynamically, authentically, quietly energized.
“I’m Sorry” draws melodically from Madonna‘s “La Isla Bonita”, albeit with a melancholy overtone. Midway, Parks drifts into a spoken-word segment regarding the innumerable distractions we use to ease our discomfort and dispel our frustrations (“Tried to meditate fuck the pain away / Tried to move out to LA / Dye my hair lime be a saint”). The construct highlights Parks’ examination of the inner and outer static we endure constantly; the burnished production, however, removes any semblance of the grit required to address the current zeitgeist pertinently.
Closer “Ghost” employs warpy accents that recall Sade‘s mid-1980s heyday and beats that might’ve been plucked from 1990s-era Everything But the Girl. My Soft Machine ends with Parks repeating the lines, “Melt right into you / let you be the glue”, pointing to an idealized romance.
My Soft Machine unfolds respectably, proficiently, even likably, yet not particularly memorably. Parks is 22 years old, an undeniably talented singer-songwriter, and surrounded by capable colleagues. If she can steward her still-developing craft, exercise patience and discernment, and be selective in terms of her support team going forward, there’s every reason to expect that she’ll be releasing vital music, and exploring various trajectories, for many years to come.