Review Summary: A complete 180; from viral 'sad guitar girl' to new wave-influenced punk rocker with a vulnerable side.
Viral video sensation "First Kiss" rocked both admirers and critics on social media when it spread like wildfire back in 2014, depicting ten couples from all walks of life engaging in a – you guessed it – first kiss. The highly deliberate cast of actors and their faux-shyness weren’t enough to hamper the video’s highly atmospheric charm, largely reinforced by the diversity and the black and white filter meant to give it directorial and artistic flavour. However, the song choice was the ace in the hole in ensuring the video’s spread, so much so as to land said song on the #2 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100. An actress in the video herself, Soko and her 2012 single “We Might be Dead by Tomorrow” were destined to be featured on a video like this. In her breathy French accent, she sings bittersweet lyrics of her pleading to a discreet lover to celebrate their relationship in the face of adversity and the inevitable coming of death – all to the tune of a sombre guitar. She subtly combines mood, introversion and a myriad of ideas, ranging from mortality to denial to a pro-LGBT message. Her largely acoustic debut album “I Thought I Was an Alien” showcases a similar vein of songs painting images of abandonment, sadness and agony. However, it unexpectedly features a surprising wave of kooky lyrics about aliens, nostalgic anecdotes and sunshine. Song by song, she carves out this quirky persona for herself on this album by throwing in non-rhyming couplets, clown similes, drug abuse and loneliness. Soko does this all while still making the album work under the blanket of vapid indie folk via its otherworldliness, sheer eccentricity and her broken vocal style. These take the role of the album’s sole distinguishing factors that would otherwise doom it to unmemorable obscurity.
With all this in mind, Soko’s persona is the only remnant left from her debut album as she rocks into her sophomore effort “My Dreams Dictate my Reality”. As the title’s style suggests, what could’ve been another ornate yet insipid journey through the songwriter’s thought process was instead replaced with a new wave, 80’s, pop-rock infused collection of songs, lifting her from “eccentric French Indie guitarist” to “bisexual, punk, pop-goth”. She retains her distinguishing lyrical style (run-on, specific, imaginative) yet showcases a wide variety of emotions, from gloomy introspection in “I Come In Peace”, to frenzied obsession in “My Precious”, to a loud lesbian punk anthem in “Who Wears the Pants??”. The musical style of the album also compliments these themes, with a combination of reverb-heavy and electric guitar being moulded and carried throughout each song by a wave of synth beats and electronic sound effects. This provides a much richer musical experience than her densely atmospheric debut album, as Soko is now in charge of her emotions, and not the other way around. This is not to say that the album is supported by instrumentation alone – she is still the same emotionally pained singer-songwriter. However, rather than drowning herself in a whirlpool of sorrow and nostalgia as she often did in her debut, Soko wears her grief on her shoulders and explodes in various emotional highs and lows through her exploring of her own fantasies and dreams. Per the album title, the songs are all deeply rooted in how she dreams of the world and how she fights to apply these images to her reality – giving her otherworldliness some much needed context and purpose that was severely lacking in her debut album. She actively jumps lyrically from despair over death, to remaining forever young, to singing a new-wave, robotically charged love duet with Ariel Pink. This almost bipolar quality found in both her lyrics and the musical is quintessentially portrayed in “Temporary Mood Swings” – major verses with chromatic bridges, lyrics of both “smiling a smile…I can't control” and being a “victim of desire” and wishing to “be better”, all while the sounds in the background of the song rise and rise before abruptly ending. These songs showcase her vulnerability as a singer, as Soko is adamant in shying away from what makes a conventional singer. Sticking with a melody takes a back seat to her enunciation, breath, and the use of echoing which further fill up the air around her with a sense of mysticism and power.
Nevertheless, given the album’s central theme of dreams and Soko’s style of songwriting, “My Dreams Dictate my Reality” falls into the same pitfall that “I Thought I Was an Alien” did – it naturally does not lend itself easily to exploring deeper underlying themes. Soko explores her thoughts through intimate emotions and personal encounters (both fictional and non-fictional). She forgoes the use of allegories, alternative instrumentation and almost any sense of a “double meaning” and cryptic messages. The album doesn’t provide anything new in terms of affecting how we as humans see the world, nor does it offer anything groundbreaking in terms of music (in fact it’s the opposite, as the album is heavily built on a swarm of new wave, synthetic and retro-punk beats from past decades). However, all these qualities simultaneously play to the album’s strength – it’s easy. There’s no need for it to be replayed upwards of 20 times in order to be fully experienced; in fact replaying the whole thing too much kills its charm. It’s the same as diving into a pool, the pool being Soko’s vivid dream world full of alien sonic charm, lesbian love and a big, straight-edge middle finger to modern day society. You swim through a world full of perpetual sadness, isolation, lust and wonder, while the water pushes you through as you delve deeper and deeper. Eventually though, you just want to get out, take a breath, and dry off. This doesn’t take away from the album’s quality, in fact quite the opposite. This is how dreams function – as magical momentary diversions of reality that we experience every night, but which would drive us insane if experienced constantly. Soko’s youthful attitude to sex, emotion and reality in general is no exception, especially when set to accessible music meant to put you through a spectrum of emotions as wide as her creativity.