Coming off an excellent debut album, Collapsed In Sunbeams, Arlo Parks has given us these intricate R&B/Soul/Pop hybrids, free-flowing with a natural cadence that evokes those calming emotional notes that keep you ingrained in her sound. It transfixes you into this world that balances the nuances of indie R&B/Soul and Pop with its loverly and atmospherically composed vocals that define the textures of her writing. As Arlo Parks noted through her quick one-minute explanation of the core context of the album, “This record is life through my lens, through my body – the 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 – what it’s like to be trapped in this particular body.” Though that is prevalent within her follow-up, My Soft Machine, it’s an album that does more of the same without feeling consistently unique from her debut, leaving us with her songwriting, vocal performance, and some quality but uninteresting production.
Sonically driven to encompass mood, My Soft Machine mostly excels due to Arlo Parks’ songwriting and vocal performances having an immense pre. It’s an album where even the mildest production brings these solid melancholic sensibilities, but most times, you feel like there was some room to explore more. You hear it from the beginning with the song “Bruiseless,” one of two tracks entirely produced by Parks’, the other being “Ghost.” It feels like this heightened push towards building an album that becomes an embodiment of its lead artist – it’s a commonplace, but all do so differently; here Parks takes the lyrical route – in doing so, it shows Parks swimming through these beats fluidly, allowing her themes to breathe and offer more of an understanding. It’s what’s in between the two tracks that it starts to limp with its steadfast pace and familiarity. They interject, creating a negative fluidity where occasionally it’s more challenging to crumble and ingest what’s getting said because as you dig through, you get more entrenched by Parks’ whimsical melodies in her choruses.
There are occasions Arlo Parks’ choruses have more of a gravitational pull, as they emerge with this hypnotizing energy that sometimes her verses feel like a minimal afterthought. It becomes detrimental to boasting some thematic poignancy, even though the choruses aren’t thin, similar with the visceral depth in her verses. It isn’t too recurring as you can sense the differences, like with “Impurities” and “Purple Phase” – the emphasis is more evenly split, leaving these haunting vocals as a ghostly reminder – with the former, it does enough to hook you with the verse, but when Parks begins to sing, “I radiate like a star, like a star, star, star … When you embrace all my impurities/And I feel clean again,” in the pre-chorus and chorus respectively, it’s simplicity gets reinforced by the whimsy in her voice, allowing to have the gripping depth seen between the love she shares with her significant other. But its when you get to the crux of her verses where you hear what Parks wants to relay, even when it’s a little forgettable like “Blades” or “Puppy,” which don’t tread to new territory with its instrumental inclusions, specifically the synths.
Unlike Arlo Parks’ last album, the production sometimes feels predictable, rarely enticing you all the way and making you love it in its entirety. The soulful strings and subtle, buoyant percussion patterns add weight to the sound structure; yet, it gets disappointing when it slightly retreads mood-focused layers that you feel like you’re listening to the same moods, despite different themes represented. One example comes from “Weightless,” which ventures through safe paths, illuminating only when the chorus strikes, continuing to show the ferocity given to the delivery of either. “Weightless” has solid verse but is a little forgettable, specifically as Parks flows over these simple drum patterns. It leads into a surprising rap verse, but it’s not enough for the song to gain momentum, like “Dog Rose,” where the production is its defining juncture. Its chorus comes stronger than other aspects of the vocal performance, but this guitar-driven production feels stunted by not so gripping vocals from Parks.
One definitive highlight on the album is her duet with Phoebe Bridgers. It’s refreshing and an embodiment of their craft, especially their directional cadence, driving forth this theme of true love. It adds dimensions when the song embodies vague layering that can be reflective of whoever is listening. It’s more so because both artists are bisexual, and it adds nuanced dimensions, allowing the song to have more cognitive meaning, like the others, which continues to be enveloped by the world around Parks. On “I’m Sorry,” we hear Parks talk about this hardened shell she wears, making it harder for others to get through. Or with “Devotion,” she brings this otherworldly rock establishment with her co-producers, creating this incredible tale of queer love that evokes darker moods, alla Prince. She uses these dark conjectures to capture this love, twisting whats negative into the positive, like with the pre-chorus, where she sings, “Girl, I wanna protect you, I do, oh/Your eyes destroying me/I’m wide open, hmm.” It rounds out this solid follow-up that aims for depth, even when the production lacks luster.
The Soft Machine is unique, but not much so with the production. It’s within this zone that takes a safer route to allow the writing to gain emphasis, but in doing so, it sometimes whiffs at making its gravitational pull more powerful. It was something that did grow on me the more it played, especially as I let it connect after giving different sectors more attention based on what’s the most potent. It isn’t to say the supporting cast there isn’t up to par, but it’s more of a disappointment from its lack of consistency. I enjoyed it a lot, but I’ll find myself returning to the debut more frequently than not.