Admittedly, “voice of a generation” is an epithet that gets thrown around a lot, but when Arlo Parks released Collapsed in Sunbeams in 2021, it felt apt. The album was praised for its diaristic lyrics, which cleaved closer to poetry than pop music, and her soft but acute observations of the rising mental health crisis among Gen Z resonated with listeners who were tuning in mid-pandemic. The British Parks won the Mercury Prize for her debut effort, and now lives in sunny LA with her girlfriend, the blue-haired, alt-pop rapper Ashnikko, whom one can only guess had a lot to do with Parks’s new record.
Like her first album, My Soft Machine – a nod to Joanna Hogg’s 2019 romance The Souvenir – opens with a spoken-word track. This time it’s a lament for childhood. Over dry, jammy drums and a chillwave beat, Parks wishes to be “seven and blameless”. She is careful with every consonant, enunciating each one so they come out crisp like the first bite of an apple. Smuggled in the nostalgia, though, is our first hint that this album will not be so despairing. “The person I love is patient with me, she’s feeding me cheese and I’m happy…”
On her second album, Arlo Parks finds inspiration in pop’s eternal subject: love. It’s something that she is currently in the throes of. Love skips through the record, scattering images behind it like petals: there are “linked pinkies” and “dancing to Enya” and “a whiff of your rose Diptyque”. Fellow sad girl-in-music Phoebe Bridgers pops in for the very romantic “Pegasus”, a sugar-spun electronic paean to those very rare relationships: right person at the right time. Bridgers is the ideal companion here. Her lower register lends some heft to Parks’ saccharine falsetto – always lovely but sometimes monotonous.
My Soft Machine is a punchier, poppier outing for Parks but the record shares a lot in common with its predecessor. You know where songs are going before they get there, traversing as they do predictable sonic ground, pretty as ever – a lyrical terrarium teeming with peonies and pollen, wisteria and sandflies – but par for Parks’s course. Tinkling keyboards, dreamy synths, easy melodies and the occasional low-slung trip-hop beat. It’s when Park veers off her own path that things get interesting. “Devotion” is a risk that pays off. It’s the shortest track (bar the overture) with a brief runtime that belies its grand ambitions and fun surprises. Thrashier than the rest, “Devotion” has a grunge crunch to it that’s redolent of, say, Deftones. When, midway through, the track dives into a showy maelstrom of electric-guitar riffs, it’s as unexpected as it is welcome.