Review | SOAK - Grim Town
On her sophomore effort, SOAK evolves from monochromatic indie folk songstress to vibrant art-pop savant; her increasing self-assuredness drawing songs of surprising sincerity.
The world seems so small when you’re a teenager – school, friends, girlfriends/boyfriends, part-time jobs. Bridie Monds Watson, aka SOAK, captured the pervading sense of claustrophobia that comes with this life stage resolutely on her 2015 debut album, Before We Forgot How to Dream; which should come as no surprise considering the album was penned and recorded while the Northern Irish singer-songwriter was still a teenager. The album itself overflowed with feelings of both anxiety and acceptance; conveying the youthful yearning for a life less ordinary but all but admitting defeat at just how overwhelming a task leaving it all behind can be. “We’re trying hard to make sense of what we are” she sang on B a noBody, the honesty and pessimism of her narrative voice and the message it carried almost too real “we’ll never amount to anything."
Being a young gay woman in the predominantly Catholic and ethno-religious-socio-politically tense environment of Derry, adolescence wasn't easy for SOAK. Her brand of polished, dreamy indie folk struck a chord with people far and wide, on both sides of the border and beyond. At just nineteen, the album earned her a nomination for the prestigious, taste-setting Mercury Prize, making her the youngest artist ever to be nominated. Older and having relocated to Manchester, SOAK is now removed from that monochrome backdrop in a physical, mental and temporal sense – and sonically, Grim Town follows suit. Gone is the sense of macabre and in its place a sunnier, more vibrant art pop outlook and musical palette with more than a look back over its shoulder to those who connected so heavily with its predecessor.
The album opens with a spoken word vignette taking the form of a railway service announcement, offering carriage for just the sort of people SOAK has to date represented and reached out to in her output: “recipients of universal credit or minimum wage, the lonely, the disenfranchised, the disillusioned, the lost, the grieving. Those who are unmedicated and who have salaries or pension plans should vacate the carriage immediately.” An ominous statement set to a dirge-like funeral organ until you hear the comforting sound of giddy chat and cans being cracked open.
Suitably segueing into album opener proper Get Set Go Kid, a track with cloyingly cooed vocals and a Western cabaret shuffle that would make Nancy Sinatra sick, which gives way to a syncopated coda complete with a saxophone solo; any pretence or anticipation of Grim Town being a concept album is dropped thereafter. Everybody Loves You is a glossy, trippy number that grows increasingly heart-shape eyed towards its climax, while Knock Me Off My Feet channels the mid-era pop stylings of The Cure. In just three tracks, SOAK begins to forge a new identity as an art-pop savant.
It is in Grim Town’s more intimate moments however that we truly witness SOAK’s maturity as a songwriter and willingness to bare her soul. Turns like Fall Asleep Backseat, Crying Your Eyes Out and Valentine Schmalentine respectively discuss post-broken home anxiety, post-breakup despair and buying Tesco flowers as the final nail in the coffin of a doomed relationship. The masterstroke, however, is album centrepiece Déjà vu; a song so deceptively bleak in its sunny demeanour the likes of which haven’t been heard since the release of OutKast's Hey Ya.
Though not as thematically cohesive as one would have expected from its train station themed intro, Grim Town is a journey nevertheless. Though melodically (and towards the album’s back-end, sequentially) predictable overall, SOAK offers enough grit and spunk to make Grim Town worth a visit and if the life affirming closing track Nothing Looks The Same is anything to go by (“I don’t wish I was somewhere else all the time”), it’s not the worst place in the world to be.
Best song: Maybe
Worst song: Déjà vu