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Irish songwriter Bridie Monds-Watson was still in her teens when she released 2015's Before We Forgot How to Dream, her affecting debut album as SOAK. Arriving four years later, her follow-up, Grim Town, reacts to the realities of young adulthood in the late 2010s. A 14-track album framed by a scripted train departure and the optimistic "Nothing Looks the Same" (which also features an on-board announcement), it opens dramatically with "All Aboard." Inviting the marginalized -- and only the marginalized -- along for the ride, "Those who are unmedicated and have salaries or pension plans should vacate the carriage immediately." At least as much about the personal as the sociopolitical but set among working-class bars, scrapyards, and discount chains, Grim Town's searching lyrics are peppered with poetic turns of phrase like "Tears avalanche in search of a sleeve" and "Moulding sand castles with ashes of unwanted romantic advances." It's a town populated with depressive characters who are "sown into the sofa" or otherwise unresponsive to attention or affection, including the singer herself on tracks such as "I Was Blue, Technicolour Too." Not nearly as bleak in its musical tone, Grim Town's lively arrangements and occasional pop anthems are built on spirited grooves and shimmering synths. Tracks like "Deja Vu," the new wavy "Maybe," and the buoyant "Knock Me Off My Feet," with its clap-along accents, are outright danceable. The more downcast entries include the electric guitar-accompanied walk-up call "YBFTBYT" ("You've been forgetting to brush your teeth") and the echoing piano-and-strings ballad "Crying Your Eyes Out," which adds a band two-thirds of the way through. The latter's soaring vocal line, delivered by SOAK's idiosyncratic voice, recalls Irish icons like Bono, O'Riordan, and O'Connor, without imitating or needing to. The penultimate "Missed Calls" is another ruminating track involving unrequited affection. It alludes to New Year's Eve and a new year, leading into the cautiously optimist closing track. With its mix of catchy and moving songs, an artful structure, and a way with words, Grim Town delivers a piece of Zeitgeist as well as a solid set of tunes.
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