Arlo Parks’ second EP is intimate, but approachable; it’s chill enough for easy listening, and highly rewarding when paying closer attention. Sophie draws you in with indie pop vibes before dropping the heartbreak hammer.
If Bruce Lee taught me one thing – it’s the importance of emotional content. ‘Emotional content’ is a phrase I use a lot when talking about music with friends. I say it almost every time I talk about Future, and boy, do I talk about Future a lot. Music is unique in that it elicits a specific emotional response from listeners in a way that is more readable than any other art form. Music is the closest thing we have to writing a feeling a down. If we didn’t have music, Subway would probably never try to convince us that the five-dollar footlong is an identity. As it stands, advertisers are aware of the value of emotional manipulation, and the role that music plays in that manipulation. And here we are. Maybe if Sarah McLachlan hadn’t tried to get us to rescue an animal every ten minutes in the nineties, corporations would never have caught on.
Now, advertisers are happy to stick to an instrumental for the purpose of emotional manipulation. Vocals aren’t necessary when your only goal is to incite a broad emotional response. You feel a range of emotions throughout your life, and an instrumental pulls from a variety of experiences; you relate to it, but in a nebulous way. Add lyrics, and a song can become something tangible. I say ‘can’ because I’ve listened to Kid Cudi’s music before. His songwriting is as bland as hard tack; a Cudi fan will insist that his music is about his struggles with depression and alcoholism, but you might never know that if you just listen to an album. His lyrics are generic, which makes his music feel disingenuous. It’s like he’s just some guy trying to sell you an album by pretending to be sad.
Arlo Parks is not Kid Cudi, and Sophie is never short on emotional content. You might compare her songwriting to magical realism; she sets a scene with lines that are literal, before conjuring fantastic imagery like ‘having sex in the sky’. Aesop Rock leans heavily on this kind of imagery, to a fault. He deals in the intangible, spitting multi-syllabic rhymes that ultimately don’t say anything to anyone but the four contributors on the ‘None Shall Pass’ Rap Genius page. His music seems completely meaningless because he never stops spouting imagery long enough to provide a context for that imagery to live in. Parks, on the other hand, treats her songbook like a mood ring. She places herself in her music, cementing it in reality; the literal lyrics that surround the nebulous give her imagery readability. There’s an air of insecurity in her music, but she need not say ‘I am insecure’; she shares specific thoughts or events that point towards that self-doubt, and then solidifies that feeling with the kind of broad, emotional imagery that would make Don Draper’s mouth water.
The production on Sophie sits at the intersection of R&B, indie pop, and lo-fi beats to chill and study to. Crunchy drum breaks, mellow guitar lines, and smooth synths make up the short, five-track project. It feels analog, but not dusty. Parks’ delivery is soft and intimate; there’s a warmness to her lead vocal track, and her backing vocals invoke the same indie dream pop vibe as the guitars and synths. In all, it’s the kind of downtempo jam session that might happen in a small-town basement, if small-town basements were frequented by talented songwriters with self-awareness, instead of dudes who learned to play guitar to impress girls.
Arlo Parks is a funeral jam phenom; she opens up like a Christmas present, letting her maximize impact, despite having hooks that are typically twice as long as the verses. Sophie’s songs are kinda repetitive. I like repetitive songs! Even if you don’t like repetitive songs, you might like these. Parks’ delivery is as personal as her prose, letting her lyrics hit even when you’ve heard them before. Her soft delivery forces you to listen closely when you want to pay attention to a song; it often gives her lyrics a sense of gravitas. It feels like a close friend is confiding in you.
Parks is a talented songwriter; the songs on Sophie are easy to listen to, and rewarding to listen closely to. You’ll likely be hooked by the end of “Second Guessing”; it’s a song best described as inviting, and the follow-up, “George”, is legitimately danceable if Ayo & Teo aren’t available. Sophie slows down on the way out, but with a brief (16 minute) runtime, you’re bound to stick around until it’s ended. In fact, if you’ve been following along with the embedded videos, you’ve already heard every song but the last, which means you’ve formed your own opinion. Stop reading this. You don’t need me to tell you what to think anymore.