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Arlo Parks – My Soft Machine album review: the Mercury Prize winner pushes her sound in new directions

 (Alex Waespi)
(Alex Waespi)

As with her debut, the first track on Arlo Parks’s second album opens with some spoken word scene-setting. On Collapsed in Sunbeams in 2021, she was found feeding a cat and slicing artichoke hearts. Here, on Bruiseless, “The person I love is patient with me, she’s feeding me cheese and I’m happy.” So in some ways, nothing has changed.

The 22-year-old west Londoner still seems most content at home, finding poetic joy in tiny details of domesticity. But in the bigger picture, everything’s different. She’s now a Brit and Mercury Prize winner who has played huge gigs supporting Harry Styles and Billie Eilish, living in LA with her American pop star girlfriend, Ashnikko.

The breakneck lifestyle change proved a bit much for someone whose music had already revealed her to be a quiet, sensitive soul, trying to help a friend through depression and longing for her straight best friend in her early singles.

In September last year she cancelled a number of US tour dates for mental health reasons, writing: “I am broken and I really need to step out, go home and take care of myself.” Bruiseless also finds her longing to be seven years old again: “I just wish that my eyes were still wide.”

However, while mature listeners won’t be able to muster much sympathy for her plight on Purple Phase, where she sings that she is “terrified of turning 24,” for the most part My Soft Machine sounds remarkably happy. The twinkly keys and shuffling Nineties beats of Pegasus, which features Phoebe Bridgers on the chorus, sounds loved up and elated.

On Weightless she’s singing instead about a relationship that has seen better days, but the spongy synths and bright chorus make it the closest she’s come to a pure pop song.

Her first album would have been called trip hop in a different decade, and often her gentle lyrical brilliance was blurred by the tasteful backdrop. Here she pushes her sound in a few new directions with considerable success.

Devotion, which may have been written after she realised that her gigs were too easy to talk through, unveils a great grungy guitar in the memorable chorus. Puppy has a stranger sound, gradually dissolving in a haze of alien synth noises.

Generally the feel is summery and soothing, well suited to her new Californian existence. And whatever her circumstances, she continues to describe them beautifully.

Transgressive