Album Reviews

Arlo Parks – My Soft Machine

(Transgressive) UK release date: 26 May 2023

The follow-up to the Mercury-winning Collapsed In Sunbeams sets about laying the groundwork for a long and stellar career

Arlo Parks - My Soft Machine Arlo Parks certainly caught the zeitgeist with her debut album Collapsed In Sunbeams. It was released in the darkest days of lockdown, January 2021, and Parks’ low-key soulful pop seemed to bring solace to many. Songs like Black Dog, in particular, seemed destined to resonate with many.

Parks made such an impression that Collapsed In Sunbeams went on to win the Mercury Music Prize in 2021, an achievement that can seem as much as a curse as it is a blessing – for while it can provide a much needed springboard to future success, history is also littered with the names of those who won the prize and promptly disappeared.

There’s a lot expected of My Soft Machine then – and, in its own unfussy, unobtrusive way, it delivers. Like Collapsed In Sunbeans, this isn’t a record that grabs you, slaps you around the face and demands that you listen. It’s an album of low-key, introspective songs that would also sound perfect on a summer’s day.

While nothing on My Soft Machine will scare any fans away, there are still some surprises to be had. Opening track Bruiseless is a spoken-word track which lasts just over a minute, and Devotion contains a surprising namecheck to US alt-metal band Deftones. While Parks hasn’t exactly gone nu-metal, it’s still an exhilarating moment when Devotion bursts into some hard-rock guitar towards the end – a moment to turn up loud.

The seemingly ubiquitous Phoebe Bridgers has a guest spot on the gorgeous Pegasus – the pair have been friends since covering Radiohead‘s Fake Plastic Trees for a BBC session in 2020 – and provides some warm harmonies for Parks on a song about the beauty of a stable relationship (“I feel elated when you hold me” runs one line). Blades, by contrast, is a nod to the dancefloor, the sort of song you can imagine livening up a house party when the mood starts to flag.

Even more so than on her debut, there’s a definite mood to creating some pop anthems. Weightless is impossibly catchy, with super-producer Paul Epworth sprinkling his magic on a floaty, danceable number with a nagging chorus of “I don’t wanna wait for you”. It’s also one of a number of tracks where she effortlessly switches from a soulful croon to a soft rap.

Many of the lyrics on My Soft Machine celebrate happiness and stability, there are some darker moments too. Purple Phase seems to talk of addiction, being about a friend who tries to “flush her pills and get support” while I’m Sorry seems to relate to her burnout last year which resulted in her cancelling some US tour dates (“like a wasp, feeling trapped and crazed” she raps at one point).

It’s a record that, the longer you live with it, the more its little subtleties make themselves clear. It builds on the strengths of Collapsed In Sunbeams and ends up creating an even more rounded album. My Soft Machine may not capture the passing mood as much as its predecessor did, but it’s laying the groundwork for a long and stellar career for Arlo Parks.

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More on Arlo Parks
Arlo Parks – My Soft Machine
Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams