On first listen, the second album from London singer-songwriter Arlo Parks sounds like something to luxuriate in; Parks sings and lays down poetry over plush textures and simmering beats. But a closer listen reveals that these pillowy structures are, in fact, cushions against the blows of modern life—bulwarks that keep Parks’ self, the “soft machine” referenced in the album title, moving without cutting herself off or suffering too much long-term damage.
Parks is a pop prodigy; she got noticed by a management company as a teen and won the 2021 Mercury Prize with her debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams, which came out when she was months away from turning 21. That album’s blend of bedroom-pop sensibilities and intricately detailed lyrics felt very in tune with the homespun vibes of the early pandemic, even as the experiences described by Parks’ supple, soothing voice possessed a depth that indicated boundless curiosity.
My Soft Machine expands that sonic palette while also digging in deeper emotionally—even when Parks is describing the ways in which she tries to numb out. “I wish I was bruiseless,” she mumurs on the album’s dreamy opener, rueing her own lost innocence while regretting her powerlessness against shielding others from malevolent forces, including all the complex, not-always-positive feelings tied up in the word “love.”
Parks has a skill for inviting listeners not only into her mind, but into her immediate environment, and the effects bring her racing emotions right to the forefront. The gently groove-forward “Blades” places Parks’ longing for an ex-intimate amidst a party outfitted with totems of the good life—Diptyque candles, tequila cocktails—that only make the “regret… flowering inside me while I’m scooping ice” hit harder. “Purple Phase” is a rain-slicked chronicle of seeing a friend in crisis, Parks’ asides about the possibility of her depressed companion getting better—”I just want to see her iridescent charming cats down from trees,” she exclaims in a sing-song voice—contrasting sharply with the images of her falling into depression.
That talent extends to Parks’ cheerier moments, too. The grunge-soul love song “Devotion” explodes into a chunky riff at its climax, its lyrical references to Deftones and Kim Deal becoming alive in its 2023 vision of the alt-rock era’s poppiest peaks. “Impurities” is a sun-dappled love song where cascades of synth wash over a smoothly sauntering beat; Parks is fully enthralled in the idea of being seen as a full human—“I radiate like a star… when you embrace all my impurities,” she trills on the chorus, secure enough in herself to be okay with any flaws her lover might have: “Don’t hide the bruise, I know it’s hard to be alive sometimes.”
On the darkly hued “Puppy,” she offers a glimpse of one of those times as she recounts her sympathies for a friend who’s lost his mother—but she gazes inward with a more gimlet eye, musing, “And I’ve never felt like loss like that/ And I pray I don’t have to.” Of course, the prospect of “things [that] hurt forever” is always lurking, and Parks knows this; the pensive, layered “I’m Sorry” admits it, with Parks—surrounded by synths and a buried-in-the-mix arpeggiated guitar—apologizing for her inability to let people in because “it’s easier to be numb.”
“You got me feeling hyper real/ And I wanna belong to you,” Parks sings on “Dog Rose,” which pairs pointillistic lyrics with swirling guitars in a way that evokes early infatuation’s headiest mind-benders. Parks’ second album shows her hyper-real point of view, seizing on details in a way to figure out her place in the world, one where she can feel pure joy while bracing herself and her loved ones against life’s slings and arrows.