SOAK’s Bridie Monds-Watson has spent their last two albums sifting through melancholy, trying to find nuggets of hope. “I’m lost in some nothingness,” they keened on “Valentine Shmalentine,” backed by weary drums and sympathetic strings, “And I can’t find where the exit is.” 2019’s Grim Town brought out a cheeky, jauntier side of Monds-Watson compared to the drifting anxieties of their debut, but it’s on their third full-length If I Never Know You Like This Again that they finally embrace joy with a sprawling sense of abandon.
Like a Mary Ruefle poem, these songs are spiked with a stream-of-consciousness candor that grapples with the pandemic’s absurd precarity: exploitative landlords, “Live Laugh Love” signs, existential crises. It’s a departure from the spare narratives of their past releases, but one that seems to come naturally for Monds-Watson. “purgatory” switchbacks between disarming earnestness and gallows-humor deflections, knowing that hell doesn’t come after death; it’s already here. “When my life flashes before my eyes, I hope that it’s Academy-winning,” they fantasize over playground “na-na”s and pained guitar twangs. “baby, you’re full of shit” feels even more acerbic in its attempt to find connection, like a corroded knife: “Usually, I’m a T-shirt cannon full of compliments.” Monds-Watson has given voice to anxieties about society’s decaying sincerity before, but their list of grievances—dime-a-dozen podcasts and faux-environmentalism, to name a few—makes that feeling of emotional distance seem overwhelming.
Unlike past projects, If I Never Know You Like This Again was recorded with a live band, as opposed to remotely or as a pair with producer Tommy McLaughlin, and as a result, there’s a vigorous intensity that propels this album forward. That much was clear from lead single “last july,” a dizzying salvo of battering drums and grunged-up guitars that felt brasher and more tangled than anything SOAK had released before, but Monds-Watson dials up the drama in other ways, as well, experimenting with atmosphere and tempo. Satellite-shimmer synths turn “gutz” into a cosmic swirl of nostalgia, while “neptune” catapults further into space for Monds-Watson’s proggiest song yet, a glacial seven-minute epic of warped noise and meteoric percussion. Even “swear jar,” the closest song there is to a ballad on the record, blossoms into a climax of glistening violins and a cymbal crash. Each minute feels packed with a sense of urgency, an indomitable will to speak fearlessly.
It’s this spirit that makes for some of Monds-Watson’s most conversational and vulnerable songwriting yet. If Grim Town focused on what mere survival looked like, then If I Never Know You Like This Again captures the gnarled frustrations and contentment alike of a life fully lived. “red-eye” rehashes a familiar story in SOAK’s discography, Monds-Watson restless to break from small-town life, but with biting resentment for every stale and superficial lunch date. “pretzel,” on the other hand, finds tenderness in small moments, dilating the tempo from a fever rush to a slow-mo reel of domestic scenes: “She dances naked on the bed / To teach me body confidence.” Details feel collaged together rather than pristinely curated, making one line lighthearted and the next casually devastating.
Nowhere is this more clear than on “bleach,” the album’s emotional centerpiece, which feels both like a letter to an ex-lover and a door into Monds-Watson’s inner monologue. A lone acoustic guitar opens the track, and the lyrics are almost as bare, reminiscing about stray hairs and dye mishaps. It’s a quiet start, and one that becomes even softer halfway through the song when Monds-Watson reveals their most arresting insecurity: “I can’t compete with anatomy / I’ll never be the real deal.” The confession is too much to bear: Monds-Watson’s whisper grows into a howl as they fall headlong into agony for a romance that never was. This is perhaps the defining characteristic of If I Never Know You Like This Again: In the face of the unbearable, Monds-Watson doesn’t turn away; they stand their ground, daring to lose and feel again.
Austin Nguyen is a Los Angeles-based writer who has written for FLOOD, The Quietus and other publications. He can be found on twitter @_austin_nguyen.