When Soko is good she is very very good. When she is bad, she is hiply boring in a disco-bunny glitter-purge kinda way. Her third album – called Feel Feelings, a glib line that has been overworked by various abusers of stream of consciousness lyric writing, is a mixed bag. Of course, I want to adore any album that dares to examine the’pillow princess’ phenomenon (passive lesbian partners that take …and don’t give – obviously not a blissful state of affairs, but one SoKo is willing to indulge. SoKo is a bisexual heroine), and the thrill of bisexual lesbian lust. I was impressed but not surprised that the brutally self confessional SoKo does not shy away from looking at the ‘oh fuck now what’ moments of that first pregnancy where the fulfillment of the biological urge to reproduce are tempered by wondering where the fuck did YOU go. Soko does not shy away from writing peculiarly female music. She is the queen of modern confessional psycho-chick post pop, goth punk, folk tinged lofi.
Her first two albums, the folky I Thought I Was An Alien and the follow up goth-lite, post-punk but hard (yet straight) edged, My Dreams Dictate My Reality had moments of brilliance, but Feel Feelings seems to have lost the thrill of the chase, the desire to shock and provoke. SoKo is the coolest straight edger to grace punk history. I usually find the straight edge crowd that are violently sober, to the point of sometimes beating up junkies, banal and brutal. SoKo might complain that her boyfriends like to get high and so can’t possibly love her enough, since ‘drugs come first’ as she put it in In short it is lofi, disco-inspired, lounge music. Her gorgeous rainbow heart just isn’t in it. Feel Feelings isn’t unobtrusive enough with its sound effects and distortion and happy boppy abba-esque glitter ball beats and vibe, to be background music. Nor is it SoKo’s usual acoustic, stripped back, nor her driving beat, speedy punk riot grrrl act. It is neither here nor there, not warm or cold. It feels as if she is trying too hard whilst holding back.
First Love Never Die, from I Thought I was An Alien, lays open the universal feeling the SoKo taps into, the zeitgeist, that leads you on to walk with her a while, your best friend that knows that sometimes you just need to cry, even years after the heartbreak and loss of love. Wondering how those lost loves are doing, where they are, crying over what could have been, is infinitely identifiable. Her vulnerable voice, the slight edge to the music, the left of center take on the love story is what SoKo does well. She uses her accent and her linguistical idiosyncracies to pull the songs out of traditional pop songstress territory and keep it cool and bohemian. SoKo has a sense of humor. SoKo is hip. SoKo is the woman who cut an song called Ill Kill Her, a rapped stripped back, barely electric, Suzanne Vega influenced track, that keeps psycho just on the right side of cute and adorable. How SoKo can go from writing quirky songs, in a fast folk rap beat style from disco babble dreariness that makes me want to slash both wrists just to get away from the enforced glitter and happiness, I do not know. I went into Feel Feelings hoping for another injection of Gallic manic depressive cuteness, and left feeling like I had been abducted and forced to listen to Abba on loop instead.
SoKo’s voice gets lost in the mix. It is too much, too polished, too ‘big’. Too lounge music, too Tony Bennet. Too sparkly. Her lyrics are her superpower, and they get lost in the fussy and overcomplicated arrangements. I don’t know if I like the songs – I can’t hear them. Time Waits for No One, could be a great song, if it cut the schmaltz and quit the under water sound effects, and sounded like SoKo. Hurt Me With Your Ego, falls into the same trap of over reverbed vocals – she isn’t in a cupboard, she is under an Olympic-sized swimming pool. In order to understand what she is singing I needed to google the lyrics, the song is so buried under water. Drowned, dull and middle of the road, AOR E Z listening. Of course it is hip. SoKo can’t be anything other than hip, she is who she is. That deep sexy French voice of hers, that conspiratorial whisper needs a more sympathetic treatment than Feel Feelings allowed. Trying to turn her into Lourdes or Billie Eilish should be a crime. I am all for artists evolving, I even don’t mind a bit of selling out, playing for popularity, but this is just a crying shame that these songs were wasted. There are flashes of her old rebellious self, she literally lets us inside her hearing the heartbeat of her unborn child at the end of Hurt Me With Your Ego, is a typically SoKo move, but these moments of playful self examination are few and far between.
The juxtaposition between her Euro deep boom tone and her sweet girlish crooning always works for her. Are You A Magician almost takes off, but is weighed down under sound effects, reverb echo and an overwhelming drummer. Being Sad Is Not A Crime, starts off with SoKo shocking admission that she is a ‘threat to herself’, but then melts into standard female singer polish, and that Las Vegas AOR swing, it ends up being neither Madonna nor Mo Tucker, instead reaches for some Florence and the Machine poppy popularity, and leaves me feeling cheated, because it doesn’t do that either. It has a hook, it has a catchy little trap, I suppose it is the natural progression from her gloriously insane track LoveTrap Featuring Ariel Pink, but is a little too sane, a bit too normal. Blasphmie, the French language track has an attractive circus topsy turvy sound, but in the end all the tracks just bleed into one overly sugared homogenous lump of trying too hard hipness without the meaning or definition between the tracks. There is no stand out single on the album, no radio friendly immediately identifiable as SoKo track that makes me want to press play or pick up the guitar and play along.
Of course there will be those that love this more poppy, less weird and wired sound, that can stand this amount of abuse of reverb and sound effects and don’t have a visceral reaction to lounge-disco easy listening. I am not that person. I am just not feeling Feel Feelings at all.