Grim Town. It’s unclear exactly what or where it is but it’s grey, flat and small in both size and significance.
It’s a concrete slab on a cul-de-sac that leads to nowhere. It’s a restlessness that rocks back and forth, back and forth. It’s the suffering that starts in the corner of your mind or in the crease of your forehead and ends with total loss of identity and control. It’s the grim realisation that you are not who you thought you were, and that the only way you can face your most excruciating fears is through an unforgiving, unadulterated pop song. ‘You are now entering the southbound train to Grim Town. Please surrender any faith, passportation or optimism to platform staff if you haven’t already. Refreshments will not be available on this service. Thank you and enjoy your journey.’
“I was so sure of myself when I was sixteen, so sure of what I was about, and I didn’t give a f**k. But when I finished touring I realised that I absolutely didn’t. I had no idea. When you’re on tour you get into a cycle of something, and in a way you’re growing but really you’re not because everything stays the same, everything stays constant. And then when I was finished I was like, I have no idea what anything is. So, I had a freak-out-moment, and I spent a year in that freak-out-moment, not knowing what was what anymore. It was scary.”
But how can anybody truly know themselves at just sixteen? The term ‘to come of age’ comes with so much baggage, so much expectation, with SOAK’s second album Grim Town, Bridie dissolves all assuredness, and we follow her on this empowering but often painful journey, clinging closely to the handrail.
“This album feels a lot more real to me. I think in the first album I held back from saying certain things.” Performing under SOAK, Bridie is no stranger to holding back, to hiding behind a pseudonym or beneath capital letters, to hiding behind words – whilst also being completely out there: “I would even purposefully sing something weird [in the first album] so you couldn’t hear exactly what I was saying.” But there is an unprescribed honesty to Grim Town, almost as though the greater soundscape, bigger production, brass sections and soulful backing vocals gave Bridie the confidence to make herself more vulnerable, to truly put her introspections in the firing line. The album opening jump-starts the listener into action with Get Set Go Kid (“me telling myself to wise up”). This up-beat opener playfully marks the beginning of the end, the train track towards freedom – “I’ve got to get out, I can’t live here anymore!” For Bridie this is an escape from more than just her hometown of Derry, it’s an escape from her sixteen-year-old self which she had recorded and cemented into 2015 with ‘Before We Forgot how to Dream’, an escape from the weight of her own identity and suffocating headspace. “With the first album, I just didn’t really know much about myself or my life, and this time round I feel like I just had time to process it all. I was having such a s**t time- I was literally distraught in every single way and when I started writing these songs, I had to get them out of my brain to deal with them better, to process everything, and I tried to make it loud so that I could say it and hear it, so it became like this sonic landscape.”
Jump to the aptly titled Life Trainee, and we enter a whirring static and a piano tinkling with trepidation before delving into powerfully positive, almost gospel-like anthem on how its OK not to be OK: ‘What phased me before/ leaves me cold and bored/ the sadness addict/ just couldn’t hack it’ . This structure mirrors our own journey throughout the album, and Bridie’s own onward journey to acceptance. But, this acceptance only comes after a difficult attempt at honesty and total vulnerability. I was blue/ Technicolour Too is stripped back, rough and an unbearably vivid, voyeuristic description of a house party, alight with aux-chord hoggers and treadmill jaws, and although playful in tone and discreet in meaning, it marks an important rite of passage for Bridie. “Essentially, it’s a song about watching people off their heads on drugs, but I could have never said that before, and to be honest I don’t think I would have wanted to, even. But now, everything I’ve said in this album I just feel like I have to say it. Literally HAVE to.”
An important part of this departure and growth was leaving her long-term producer and friend, Tommy McLaughlin of The Villagers, who has been producing SOAK since 2010, “it was a really hard decision – Tommy’s amazing – but I didn’t want this record to feel or sound like the last one. I wanted it to be clear that I’ve grown up, and to be a step up, essentially, in all the ways that it could be – and Ant provided that.” Enter Ant Whiting. With a heavy pop catalogue that includes M.I.A, it was his mastery of such a broad, colourful and pop-driven sound that helped to create, as Bridie so perfectly puts it, “a carnival of noise.” De Ja Vu epitomises this kaleidoscopic sound, with its eerie chromatic opening, anthemic, ABBA-esque chorus and unnerving police sirens. As we follow the track it begins to resemble the car crash imagined in the song; ‘You’ve been drinking again/ Crashed the car and you blamed the rain’. “De Ja Vu is basically about someone in my life who I was worried about a lot. You know, one of those people who is never really stable and you’re scared that one day it might all go wrong and how all the neighbours would be in the street watching it and the sirens would be going off.” Bridie hypothesizes the future whilst simultaneously looking back to the past, reliving and rethinking this could-be future over and over again, and this is the essence of Grim Town.
There is a transience to the album, a movement which is sometimes unpredictable, but the broader sonic space created gives our heroine more space to be unsure of herself and explore parts of her psyche which are perhaps not so clear cut. “I was so scared that everyone would expect me to stay really acoustic and mellow, when actually I wanted it to be really in your face and poppy one minute and then suddenly become really introspective and sad.” Similarly, Bridie herself changes physical form. In Everybody Loves You, the euphoric first single, marks the aftermath of a long distant relationship: ‘cos I was built from concrete/so I don’t hurt no more’. Then, in Maybe, she becomes fluid and surreal, floating through somebody else’s psychological landscape ‘I don’t’ even wanna know where I go in your memory.’
More than this however, the songs themselves are volatile, and they too are constantly changing state. At the (un)ripe age of twenty-two, Bridie already reminisces on her even younger self. She laments in Crying, ‘oh, to be sixteen’, and it is unclear whether she is craving the hopeful naivety of her youth or cringing at her own youthful expense. In a similar vein, she cringes as she points at an intricate flower tattooed on her elbow, done to cover up a suspiciously phallic looking hammer that was blurred out due to obscenity during a recorded live performance – (‘and that’s why they shouldn’t let you get tattoos when you’re 16!”) But Bridie doesn’t feel calloused when she reflects on the past, “it just feels weird. I wrote that bridge two or so years after I’d actually written Crying, so I kind of went back to the song and was reminiscing about the person I was when I first wrote it, the person I was when I was sixteen. It’s weird to reflect on something that didn’t happen that long ago.” So, the songs themselves exist in a kind of structurally lucid state, ever growing and ever changing. But, that unforgettable, haunting purity of Bridie’s voice remains and cuts through the broader and more playful musical and lyrical landscape, like unforgiving black ink on white, freckled skin.
“Where am I in Grim Town? I think I’m on the street. Just walking. Constantly moving and never settling. But it’s important that I eventually leave Grim Town, because the main point of the album is that it can get so so bad, really bad, and it can be dramatic but that’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”