Arlo Parks: My Soft Machine (Transgressive) - review | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Friday, June 9th, 2023  

Arlo Parks

My Soft Machine


May 26, 2023 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Mercury Prize winner Arlo Parks returns after a sea change with an anticipated sophomore album that doesn’t disappoint. Last May, the 22-year-old swapped London for Los Angeles with a coterie of new friends and a significant other. She’s also upgraded from the largely bedroom aesthetics of the pandemic-penned Collapsed in Sunbeams to a string of studio collaborators on the spikier, synth-driven My Soft Machine.

Its moniker borrows from The Souvenir—a Johanna Hogg film where the male character explains to his filmmaker girlfriend the allure of celluloid saying, “We don’t want to see life as it is played out—we want to see life as it is experienced, in this soft machine.” Parks’ soft machine bottles her personal experience of falling in love as the world re-opened, and she was swept up on tours, playing alongside pop’s best-loved from Harry Styles to Phoebe Bridges, Billie Eilish, and Lorde—a time marked by expansive growth in her private life and public persona, but these incredible highs were punctuated with intense lows.

Like her debut, a poem prologues the album. “Bruiseless” makes mention of abuse and hints at a traumatic event that finds Parks’ yearning for a simpler time—“I just wish I was seven and blameless”—but this trauma of hers never seems to come back into view here. Instead, it’s aimed at her girlfriend—“Don’t hide the bruise when you know I’m watching baby,” she sings on “Impurities.” Love is what it means to feel safe enough to fully reveal vulnerabilities—bruises, warts and all. My Soft Machine’s best songs are beatific, describing giddy moments of intimacy or a new found domesticity, even a falling out only serves to pull the pair closer.

“Loose cherries, hot breath I’m overwhelmed,” she coos on “Pegasus” (which features Phoebe Bridges), before the chorus kicks in: “I spun round and screamed, ‘I feel elated when you hold me’/Then you got shy and beamed, ‘I think it’s special that you told me’”—the sentiment all the more resonant as Parks once sang pointedly on “Green Eyes” about a shortlived affair with someone not yet comfortable with their queerness, who “could not hold my hand in public.” Here, gossamer-light and synthy textures sparkle with music box-chimes, while Bridges’ deeper register adds a nice counterpoint to Parks’ airy, honeyed vocals.

“Dog Rose”—the pretty, pink and yellow-hued flower which she employs to describe an inner city sunset—is another dream pop standout. Parks excels at the minutiae, her sense of place, time, and the emotion encoded in these moments are impeccable as a deft director’s mise en scene—“you’re jumping the turnstiles” elicits a devil may care insouciance, “I’m feeling horrible, wearing your clothes,” a willingness to take in discomfort and partake on a mis-adventure together and “I’m watching you chew the side of your cheek” the kind of adorable observation a new lover takes pride in making. Elsewhere on “Blades,” when she raps “I’m scared to speak as I catch a whiff of your rose Diptyque” your olfactory picks the scent too.

Whilst her sweet vocals are enviable, too much can border on sacahrine and veer the songwriting into a sameness—a criticism leveled against her previously. With “Dog Rose,” a dose of crunchy guitar and a hint of distortion cuts through delightfully. Rather than cloying, it’s hard not to feel overcome with goosebumps.

In addition to her indie sensibilities and shades of trip hop, there’s ample thematic and sonic variation here to keep you engaged. On “Weightless,” Parks sings of a toxic relationship she’s found hard to dissolve, as precision crafted blocks of synths and drums add flourish to this Paul Epworth-produced dancefloor-ready, electro-pop banger. On the darker, R&B flecked “Purple Phase,” she recounts playing savior—“flush pills and get support”—for a friend whose seen better days. There’s abrasive, rock guitar breakouts on “Devotion,” while “Puppy” spots prickly hilarity—“I’m a star I don’t care what your roommate says”—alongside melancholic musings—“wonder if the world might make sense when we’ve got three kids and our 30s end.”

There’s still a gingerliness to her songwriting, where at points you wish for less apologies and a more strident course—but that’s the take from someone whose 30s are in the rearview and knows fully well the world still doesn’t make sense. Besides, Parks’ candor and lyricism aches with a youthful tenderness so full of heart that it can trump any perceived failing in this near perfect follow up. (

Author rating: 7.5/10

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Average reader rating: 6/10


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