There was suddenly a point in 2020 when Arlo Parks was the name on everybody’s lips. Sure, she’s been releasing music since 2018, but during the pandemic, in the lead up to her debut, she was the definition of hype-y. So when Collapsed In Sunbeams was released and bagged the Mercury, we all listened a couple of times then seemed to quite quickly forget about it, like we do with most overly-hyped albums.
I think it deserved better. Housing some undeniably incredible singles like ‘Caroline’, ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Hurt’, the debut is exactly what a debut should be: full of promise. Collapsed In Sunbeams feels like a series of vignettes, telling specific stories in a way a true writer does. And Arlo was definitely sold to us as a writer; more akin to a poet than a pop star.
But two years on, whilst I’ll admit I don’t revisit Arlo’s debut that often and had hoped My Soft Machine might reignite my interest, the sophomore effort is confusingly more listenable but less interesting than its predecessor.
It starts with a kind of epilogue as Arlo the poet returns. But immediately, as ‘Bruiseless’ begins, four lines in singing “the person I love is feeding me cheese / and I’m happy”, the specificity of the debut seems to veer into off-the-cuff, borderline cliches. It’s much the same on lead single ‘Blades’, with its chorus repeating “I just don’t know what to do / I only want to be with you”; there are a few moments that make me think, ‘Oh, the poet found a rhyming dictionary’.
Losing the deeply personal, vivid images that coloured her debut, My Soft Machine is left feeling placid and even nonsensical in places. Emotions are told almost too clearly, like greeting-card liners, or are so overtly poetical the listener is left a little baffled, wondering what a “purple phase” means and what about it deserves the longest song on the album.
That said, there are moments of greatness, and they’re found during simplicity. When Arlo seems to try least, her lyrics are at their best. ‘Devotion’, for this reason, is a massive stand out. When Arlo sings “your touch embroiders me”, I get the familiar twang of ‘god, I wish I’d written that,’ while the simple chorus of “all yours, baby” goes down perfectly.
Also delivering on the most sonically interesting instrumental of the album, ‘Devotion’ should have been a single, as the roaring guitars that leap to life around 1 minute 40 feel re-energising. Being bigger than anything we’ve ever heard from Arlo, I so desperately wish more of the album was like this. Proving she can sing louder and build to big, euphoric climaxes – holding her own against a rock backdrop – it begs the question of why she doesn’t show this side off more as we sink into the rest of the album.
Another clear stand out arrives with the addition of Phoebe Bridgers on the lullaby-like ‘Pegasus’. If there’s one thing to take away from My Soft Machine, it’s that Arlo is deeply in love. Penning several odes to her partner Ashnikko, ‘Pegasus’ is the sweetest, singing “I call my mother just to tell her I’m happy”. Returning to poetic specificity, with clear images and scenes to really delve into, ‘Pegasus’ reminds you why we all got so hooked on Arlo in the first place. Merged with Phoebe’s instantly recognisable vocal, breaking up the sea of Arlo’s saccharine baby voice, it almost makes me want to return to her back catalogue.
But something holds me back. Despite being short songs, by track nine ‘Puppy’, the record feels long. With the second half of the album leaning on more electronic audio details, casual listeners might grow a bit tired of Arlo’s marmite voice layered over a beat. Unless you’re paying real attention to the lyrics, none of them jump out quite enough to recapture your attention and tracks eight to ten especially offer nothing new sonically.
All of this feels harsh to say. There’s nothing bad about the album. Perfectly produced with an instrumental that perfectly nestles Arlo’s voice, swelling where it should, creating space where it needs, it’s all perfectly nice. But nice is about it. Singing “Without you, I’m devastated, now I just want to eat cake in a room with a view” on track 11, that semi-emotional but muted image sums it up. This is a nice album, just like her debut; but while the populist decided the latter was ground-breaking, I don’t think this will get the same hype up.
As the final track ‘Ghost’ wraps up with a moment of synthy guitars, it ends as softly as it began really. The title is perfect. My Soft Machine is tender yet electronic, robotic even, with most songs following the same formula and scattering different soft emotions throughout. At her best on ‘Devotion’ when she tries something new sonically, and something less lyrically, I’m left wanting more of that. Maybe the third album from Arlo Parks will provide just that.