SOAK: Grim Town review – Bold step on an evolving creative odyssey
It was hard to believe SOAK could be that good, that young. Seven years ago, Bridie Monds-Watson announced herself with a handful of quaking acoustic numbers so gripping, so accomplished, it shattered all sense of reality to consider they’d come off the guitar of an artist too young to buy a ticket to an Eli Roth movie.
Hype is an unmerciful thing. Too many times we’ve seen blinding spotlights beamed into the bedrooms of no-fi music-makers, exposing these kids to attention they’re not ready for and expectation they can’t live up to. The fever around SOAK would have crushed many a 16-year-old. Not this Derry star, though. She has paced her career with thoughtfulness and skill, keeping her audience on strings with a relatively infrequent release schedule that has allowed plenty of time for artistic growth.
SOAK’s quaint, wistful early tracks were harnessed into her beautifully written 2015 debut album, Before We Forgot How to Dream. Now, we have Grim Town, a brilliant extension to the SOAK sound. The indie-folk twiddler has evolved into a more pop-leaning behemoth with swaggering confidence and a newly sourced sense of cool.
Before We Forgot How to Dream beautifully captured the uncertainty of teenage years, which we should universally recognise as the worst time of all our lives. “We’ll never amount to anything,” she sang on B a noBody, sounding like the awkward kid at the party who desperately wants to disappear into the walls.
In contrast, Grim Town sounds like freedom. Richly produced by Ant Whiting, the album captures the joy of being a young grown-up, when you throw off the shackles of adolescent anxiety, flourishing into the adult you were always meant to become.
As Monds-Watson hails from the city, it’s impossible not to think of the brilliance of 1990s-set Derry Girls and the brighter future for its youth that the show yearns for – a future made possible by two decades of peace but now wounded by recent unrest and the killing of Lyra McKee. If Grim Town is a blessed benediction of youthful hope, we are reminded by recent tragedies of its fragility.
The album’s first song proper, Get Set Go Kid, encapsulates SOAK’s new ethos: “There’s an entire world to live/ Beyond your middle city apartment,” she sings, immediately opening up a panoramic view that the record explores over 15 tracks. On Everybody Loves You, she stubbornly denies her feelings for an anonymous yet universally adored person, bemoaning her own flaws yet declaring, “I was built from concrete”. This new found assertiveness is backed by more strapping vocal performances.
Her writing is as rich as ever
SOAK reimagines herself as a poised indie frontwoman with a significant sense for pop melodies while maintaining the textured rasp of her distinctive voice. There’s a bolder confidence to the arrangements. Take Maybe, a propulsive pop belter featuring snappy drums, epic horns and a wicked earworm for a hook.
Yet some of the pleasing arrangements sneak through uncomfortable messages. Though no longer as fragile, SOAK is still up-front and personal. On Déjà Vu, she desperately reaches out to a loved one foolishly involved in crashing a car. “Don’t you think that you’re better than that?” she cries. Turns out, SOAK’s new sense of self-determination isn’t just limited to guided her own life – she wants to help others to be stronger.
There are some doomed ballads, too: the sad electric guitar chords of YBFTBYT is reminiscent of Cat Power. And on the mellow Valentine Shmalentine, SOAK makes a mockery of the capitalist con that February 14th has become before revealing the heartbreak that probably inspired this cynicism. “Purchasing flowers outside of the local bar/Such a romantic pound for moulded plastic,” she sings. Her writing is as rich as ever but it’s SOAK sense of boldness on Grim Town that feels like major step on her creative odyssey. Where she ends up is to be confirmed, but the possibilities are limitless.