My Soft Machine is the much anticipated follow up to Arlo Park’s Mercury Prize winning debut album Collapsed In Sunbeams. Sunbeams was an intimate collection of stories that felt deeply personal while simultaneously capturing universal feelings of her generation. Her sophomore album features glossier, punchier production while managing to retain the reflective tone that made her debut so gripping. A lot has changed in her life in the two years since – she’s toured with the biggest names in pop music, from Billie Eilish to Harry Styles, and now she’s living in LA with alt-pop star girlfriend Ashnikko. This change in lifestyle is reflected in the sunniness of the music, which leans into more of a pop direction than she has before, but underneath this is the same level of introspection about her insecurities and anxieties.
The album’s spoken word introduction, Bruiseless, sets up the emotional depth to come. Backed by a loose breakbeat, Parks is open about her vulnerabilities within seconds as she claims “almost everyone that I love has been abused, and I am included.” The pain is balanced by a tenderness that permeates the album at large: “The person I love is patient with me. She’s feeding me cheese and I’m happy.” This is seen in the following track, Impurities, an uplifting, sparkling track about embracing imperfections and becoming stronger as a result – the repeated hook of “I radiate like a star” is one of the album’s catchiest moments.
The album is at it’s best when Parks takes some unexpected left turns. Devotion begins in the delicate manner we’ve come to expect from Parks. However, a reference to Deftones in the first verse teases a grungey guitar riff that comes out of nowhere midway through the song which juxtaposes her soft vocals with dramatic effect. Another highlight is Weightless, released as the album’s first single in January, which leans into a synth-pop sound with a deep, rumbling bass line. It also features some of her best lyricism, a painful song about struggling to let go of the weight of unreciprocated love: “I don’t wanna wait for you, but I need you so I won’t go.”
My Soft Machine is a strong second album that manages to recapture the intimacy of its hugely successful precursor, but it ultimately falls short of evolving upon it. Tracks like Devotion and Weightless tease a dynamism that isn’t really felt elsewhere in the album – the lack of set pieces like these holds it back from feeling like an upgrade on Sunbeams. However, the fact that Parks is still able to create such universal music despite living such a different life is a testament to her songwriting abilities and a positive sign for things to come from her.