Soko’s low-key Feel Feelings is a chill collection of gentle pop that does a great job of conveying the feelings being felt, but is less specific about what’s behind the feelings, creating an air of mystery, like watching an upset person on the subway and trying to construct a story to explain the anguish.
Soko, also known as Stéphanie Alexandra Mina Sokolinski, is a French singer-songwriter and actress. Feel Feelings, her third album, is a return to the soft sound of her 2012 debut, I Thought I Was an Alien (with 2015’s My Dreams Dictate My Reality more of a fast-paced rock and roll experiment). On Feel Feelings Soko presents waves of blurry vocals over surprisingly crisp backing music. It’s not shoegaze or folk, but rather an oddly soothing combination of the two I’ll call folkgaze. The folk influence is larger than North American acoustic guitar and voice; Soko also subtly folds in the sounds and melodies of traditional accordion-based French music.
“Time Waits for No One” is the best example of Soko’s hybrid sound. The over-five-minute track begins with Soko’s distant voice processed, sounding like she’s floating up from below you, the hint of what sounds like an accordion quietly beneath the vocals, so that the song is slowly wafting up, like smelling someone cooking on a different floor. The tune slowly builds, keyboards and drums coming in, never turning to full-on rock, but gradually increasing the song’s density. It mirrors the evolution between Alien and Dreams, and while an entire album of this kind of expansive pop might be rough on a cognitive level, it’s certainly a wonderful side dish in this portion.
“Hurt Me with Your Ego” is almost the flip side of that sound, Soko singing over simple acoustic guitar, her voice, as always, masked in effects that feel like attempts to hide from the listener, a disguise of sorts. The lyrics mirror that distance, with an openness about emotions that doesn’t get too into the particulars: “Look at all the fingerprints / You left all over my body / Make it sacred, make it count / Oh no, you’re not easy to forget.” Musically and lyrically you instantly understand where Soko is coming from, hence the title of the album, but you don’t necessarily feel like you know how she got to feel those feelings.
Which is why “Blasphémie” is such an effective track. Featuring trippy music, almost like a European circus that accidentally took too-strong a sedative, and a vocal line that’s almost spoken in parts, Soko gets across playfulness and frustration, but without understanding the lyrics, you get to trust your own impressions, rather than processing her words. You know. Unless you speak French.
Feel Feelings is enjoyable. It probably says more about me than about Soko that I appreciate the lack of lyrical detail. There’s something nice about someone transmitting emotions without letting things get too harrowing. Part of me wonders if this is a function of Soko’s acting work, where she similarly is called upon to emote without necessarily using exposition. Wherever it comes from, it makes for an engaging album that allows the listener to fill in their own details.
review by Steven Ovadia