Arlo Parks: South London singer impresses again with the soothing ‘My Soft Machine’
The 22-year-old artist continues her journey to becoming one of the UK's most compelling indie pop stars on her second album.
I wasn’t exactly in the best mental state when I put Arlo Parks new album on for the first time. It was a rainy Wednesday afternoon and I’d been dwelling on the death of the singer of one of my favourite bands. Making my mind up on new music wasn’t exactly high up on my agenda.
Back in the day I’d been a total Frightened Rabbit fanboy and I felt a connection to their broken frontman Scott Hutchison like no one else in the music world. So with it being the fifth anniversary of the Scottish singer’s suicide, I was reminded of the heartache and sadness I’d felt back in May 2018. Back then, the news was greeted as if a close family member had died. Which I guess you might say is crazy considering we’d never met each other! But still, it was hard being reminded of such grief again and, if anything, it proved the overwhelming power a musician can have on your life.
Enter Arlo Parks and her second album My Soft Machine to provide a necessary distraction: an unexpected cure andfurther proof of the enduring strength music can have on your emotions. By the end of the first listen of the South London singer’s anticipated sophomore release, my mood had completely changed and a more hopeful outlook on life had been achieved.
One word came to define her latest work and that would be “soothing”. Songs to soothe your anxieties, soothe your heartache and soothe your grief. Parks is living these experiences and offering a warm cup of empathy to anyone going through similar. It’s somehow all so uplifting.
Back in 2021, Collapsed in Sunbeams made a household name of Arlo Parks thanks to the exposure her songs received on the likes of Radio 1 and 6 Music. She’d win the Best Breakthrough Artist Award at the 2021 Brit Awards in February before taking home the coveted 2021 Mercury Prize in September. It was no more than she deserved: a range of beautiful character driven tracks which explored mental health struggles and honest tales of youthful lust.
Two years later and Parks found herself with the challenge ofthe difficult second album phase – the mounting pressure which follows such an acclaimed start to a career. Many artists find it easy to falter, either overthinking the need to reinvent themselves or producing a watered down effort of their debut. Thankfully she’s followed her breakthrough with a record which finds a nice balance, noticeably more positive in sound while maintaining the same high standard.
In a press release, Parks describes My Soft Machine as being autobiographical in nature. The 12 tracks are inspired by “mid 20s anxiety, the substance abuse of friends around me, the viscera of being in love for the first time, navigating PTSD and grief and self sabotage and joy, moving through worlds with wonder and sensitivity”. Heavy stuff indeed, yet it never feels overwhelming.
“I wish I was bruiseless / almost everyone that I love has been abused and I’m included / I feel so much guilt that I couldn’t guard more people from harm” confesses a spoken word Parks on the short intro track ‘Bruiseless’. She continues by wishing she could go back to her worry-free childhood. Which rolls on nicely to ‘Impurities’. Rather than dwell on regret, the ambient second album track is more hopeful in tone. Parks explained how the song is about celebrating “the people who make you feel like your inner ugliness and failures and mistakes don’t matter” and she achieves a chilled out earworm as a result.
A similar optimistic sound surrounds ‘Weightless’, the trackwhich provided an excellent comeback single in January. On the album’s lead single, Parks is stuck between a rock and a hard place within a relationship. She’s unsure if she wants to stay but is weighed down by validation of her partner’s love: “I don't wanna wait for you / But I need you, so I won't go” she ponders in the chorus. The track shows lyrical development, moving the focus towards an experience she had been through herself. Which perhaps comes as a result of her increasing confidence as a songwriter – she’s now morecomfortable to reveal certain personal vulnerabilities, moving further from the character focus of her previous songwriting.
On the friendship re-building track ‘Blades’, Parks gives us the funkiest and most danceable tune on the album, wonderfully carried by a hazy synth beat. A sense of bliss is then achieved on the sweet and open fifth track ‘Purple Phase’, an emotive blues-rock riff making it the album’s most stunning song – difficult not to find yourself at least a little bit lost in this one.
Warmth also greets us on album closer ‘Ghost’. The chillwave inspired track has Parks closing her second record with anambient and joyful sound…even if she’s revealing the need to hide her anxiety away from those closest to her. “I wanna let you in / I wanna let you help me / I wanna have transparency / I wanna tell you everything” sings Parks in the song’s bridge, yet something is holding her back. This nicely summarises My Soft Machine itself. Where she can’t communicate her troubles in person, she instead pours this emotion into her songs.
Over this record, Arlo Parks does a brilliant job in creating audience empathy. Even if you didn’t know anything about her before, you’ll still come out the side of the album rooting for her. So where Collapsed in Sunbeams was often helplessly bleak,
My Soft Machine is far more lush and positive in sound. Arlo Parks is refreshingly open and honest, and her latest reveals a rising confidence in the 22-year-old singer’s work for all to see - she makes the “difficult” second album phase look effortless. A collection of soothing and uplifting tunes which continue Parks journey to becoming Britain’s most compelling indie pop songwriter.