Arlo Parks’ 2021 debut Collapsed in Sunbeams marked her as one the most resonant voices of her generation, capable of capturing our collective anxieties through uniquely poetic language and delicate, laidback melodies. But musically, there was room for growth. As a whole, it was a little too easy to get lost in its soothing sounds and intimate lyrical vignettes, her own presence sometimes drifting off into the background. Parks’ sophomore effort, My Soft Machine, takes significant steps in the right direction, punching up the production and allowing her to take more of an active role rather than being perpetually locked in that of a keen, empathetic observer. Without quite swinging for the fences, Parks communicates her sense of ambition by embracing more transparent and intentional songwriting, each choice meant to elevate the power of her words – and vulnerability.
Part of the freshness of My Soft Machine stems from Parks’ move to Los Angeles, a decision that ended up mirroring the way she approached the music. “I wanted to feel like it was coming from a completely new place,” she recently said. “I wanted to feel like it pushed the bounds of what I had done before.” On ‘I’m Sorry’, one of the more melancholy cuts on the album, the move to LA is part of a list of things – therapy, meditation, fucking the pain away – that have failed to take away the numbness, a state that’s easy to slip into when it masks itself as comfort. But Parks does step out of her comfort zone on My Soft Machine, first and foremost by bringing herself further into the fold. “I feel so much guilt that I could not guard more people from harm,” she admits on opener ‘Bruiseless’, a disarming confession from an artist whose work has been a balm for so many. As if overwhelmed by the pain that can so quickly accumulate between masses of people, she folds in glimpses of joy and childhood innocence before the song fades in just over a minute.
More so than her debut, the album navigates the thin line between joy and desperation in ways that are vivid and nuanced. On ‘Weightless’, just a few shards of affection are enough to propel the song forward, as Parks clings to the memory of a relationship grown sour (“Tethered to the person you could be/ Re-reading our texts from the strawberry days”). But joy doesn’t just come in bits and pieces or exist solely in the past; there’s a whole sea of it that Parks swims through on songs like ‘Impurities’, ‘Pegasus’, and ‘Dog Rose’, none of which sound quite like the other. With bright, dreamy instrumentation, ‘Dog Rose’ is lifted up by helpless devotion instead of drowning in it, while ‘Impurities’ basks in the warm glow of community. A guest appearance from Phoebe Bridgers is not a rarity these days, but it does so much to open up the song she’s featured in; their interweaving voices on ‘Pegasus’ give it a palpable quality, the softness of exchanged breaths more than just words.
On My Soft Machine, Parks draws from a more disparate palette that does wonders for her sound, even if she could lean into it a little more. The obvious influence of Elliott Smith and Frank Ocean now mesh with more unexpected and less fashionable reference points like the Smashing Pumpkins and Deftones that fuel highlight ‘Devotion’, whose fiery production is worthy of a line like “Flood me with your nervous love.” This dynamism extends to ‘Blades’, a deceptively upbeat song that paints a more destructive picture of devotion, as if to dance it away. The chorus of ‘Puppy’ calls back to Collapsed in Sunbeams‘ ‘Hurt’, with “Just know it won’t hurt so much forever” now becoming “I know some things don’t get easier/ I know some things hurt forever.” On paper, it seems like a regression, but it’s a testament to an artist learning to be present with – rather than trying to accurately represent – everything that’s entangled in her experience, including discomfort. In contrast to the silky R&B that encased that song, she even throws in a My Bloody Valentine-inspired synth that sends the song flying in another direction. It’s a tight balancing act and a bit of a risk, but it’s the result of Parks simply trusting her gut. After all, you don’t get to control how the truth washes over you; you can only choose how to project it.