There was some criticism of SOAK‘s first album, Before We Forgot How to Dream (2015), complaining that the production distracted from Bridie Monds-Watson’s voice or worse, covered up for some songwriting flaws, both of which cavils seemed (and remain) entirely churlish and unfounded, as if it was hard to imagine, much less accept that such a precocious talent (Monds-Watson was 18 when the album came out) could be genuine and must, therefore, be somehow propped up with gimmickry. Grim Town easily dispels any of those reservations. It’s not possible to hide and luck out twice. This second album merely serves to confirm that talent and build upon the foundation of the first outing, showing signs both of maturation and the accompanying growing pains that come with it.
Above all, Bridie Monds-Watson’s extraordinarily versatile voice transports the listener up and down the emotional spectrum with vertiginous ease, to the extent that it almost functions as the lead instrument on the album, sometimes nearly effacing the lyrical content, for better or for worse. Second, the songs are often downright jaunty, perhaps at odds with the dystopian conceit that is being purveyed. And third, the production is beautifully sparkly and layered, without ever being over the top.
Grim Town announces itself as a low-key dystopian concept album set on a purgatorial train, the “Southbound Lassitude”, headed, one presumes, for the fictional inferno of its eponymous destination. But the experience of listening to the album isn’t a downer at all. It’s actually quite bracing, even exhilarating in places, all while the lyrics might be describing less than optimal circumstances and conditions. There is relatively little melancholy here, and precious little wallowing. To be sure there is a decent amount of jaded cynicism, but it never quite devolves into despair, despite the pre-emptive caution that we should all abandon hope as we embark upon this experience. Nor, to be frank, is there any sign of the lassitude signaled by the name of the southbound train upon which we are riding, also contained in the opening spoken word piece, voiced by Monds-Watson’s grandfather, Fabien Monds: “Please surrender any faith, aspiration or optimism to platform staff if you haven’t already. There will be no refunds or compensation for inconvenience. Refreshments will not be available.”
Having been prepared for a long, slow descent into some infernal place, the album proceeds to zig-zag in a very lively upward direction out of the blocks with “Get Set Go Kid”. The opening lyrics are “Get set go kid / There’s an entire world to live / Beyond your middle city apartment,” somewhat redolent of Springsteen’s “Born to Run” exhortation if painted on a significantly smaller canvas. While we may not be pulling out of here to win, we certainly aren’t leaving with any intention of losing. It is quite refreshing to see Monds-Watson summon the energy to get up and out rather than wallow, and this is where we find that disconnect between the expectations established and the experience of the album itself. Indeed, the album abounds with energy and vitality. Early songs “Everybody Loves You”, “Knock Me Off My Feet”, and “Maybe”, feel very listener-friendly, even radio-friendly. “Knock Me Off My Feet even appears to contain handclaps, for goodness sake.
We are certainly on a journey here (and we do sometimes appear always to be crashing in the same car, as “Déjà Vu” and “Scrapyard” seem to point out, somewhat ironically), but it doesn’t feel like we’re by any means on a hellbound train. There are repeated defiant lyrics of jubilant and determined flight (“But if you’re looking for me / I’ll be out of sight” from “Everybody Loves You”, and I’ve always done the best I could / To get out of my neighborhood” from “Knock Me Off My Feet” serve as just two examples of the trope). So, everything is not as bad as it seems. In fact, Monds-Watson is doing her very best to overcome and transcend. Aurally, this feels more like a dream than it feels like either a dystopia or a joyous Springsteen-like leap toward freedom. Sounds and songs blur together, images occur and recur, sounds particularly swoop and soar, dilate and contract, ebb and flow.
Many of the songs are fairly standard wistful relationship survival narratives (“Maybe” and “Déjà Vu” being two particularly germane cases in point), from which one presumes we are also now escaping, with all of that in the rearview mirror. There are also moments of genuine yearning in the present moment, particularly with the affecting “Valentine Smalentine”, which opens up with some frank expressions of pure need. This isn’t dystopia, it’s just sadness and unrequited love, and that’s ok too – no cause for any particular end-of-the-world alarm, just common-or-garden regret perhaps.
By way of tempering a general enthusiasm for the album as a whole, one might have some minor and ultimately inconsequential reservations about the tightness of some of the lyrics that still seem to have something of the quality of high-end journal entries. This is where we encounter the aforementioned growing pains that come with the maturation of a second album, although this is certainly more than mitigated by the quality of the vignettes and turns of phrase that appear elsewhere. So while “YBFTBYT” (which stands for “You’ve been forgetting to brush your teeth”) and “Life Trainee” (“I know that look / Your puppy eyes / Like your forehead has a vacancy sign”) do not distinguish themselves lyrically, there are also little verbal gems like this from “I Was Blue, Technicolour Too”: “All the party did was depress me / My friends were elastic in their jeans / And the Niagara falls of sweat was drippin’ / Me? Slippin out the backdoor,” which conjures an entire fluid social scene in very few words. So there is plenty of hope for the future of Monds-Watson’s songwriting, while the musical side of the ledger remains already very much in credit.
The album ends with the return of Monds-Watson’s grandfather to usher us out of Grim Town: “Dear passengers, this northbound 433 train is now departing Grim Town. Atmospheric pressure and air quality will improve rapidly. Breathe deeply; feel your heart fill with joy. A sense of dizziness and mild euphoria. Don’t panic. Gather your optimism, energy, and smile as you travel along with us. Everything will be alright in the end.” This seems like the right way to conclude. Everything will be alright in the end.