SOAK is fresh, breathing reprieve from your typical indie pop. Also known as Bridie Monds-Watson, the Derry native’s pensive new album Grim Town is an ode to the disenfranchised, the “recipients of universal credit and minimum wage,” detailing her own coming-of-age journey as a butch queer woman in Ireland. The album’s opening track encourages listeners to “surrender any faith, aspiration, or optimism” before they journey to the allegorical Grim Town. The concept album, seemingly crushingly bleak at first, elevates SOAK from her counterparts for its creative ambition. Grim Town doesn’t again appear so literally throughout the rest of the album, but the misfit spirit remains.
Although the album’s lead-in may prepare you for darker subject material, Grim Town enjoys occasional spots of sunlight. “I Was Blue, Technicolour Too” encapsulates SOAK’s ability to meld sweetness and sadness, finding slivers of optimism even in despair. Many artists in her genre lean into melancholy to the point of oversaturation, creating an overly monotonous, mournful sound. SOAK, on the other hand, treats her trials and tribulations with a delicate touch, letting the beauty of the moment seep in.
Even with her softer sound, SOAK is keen to let you know that she’s tough, in a conspicuously youthful way. Monds-Watson isn’t far past her teenage years, and her assertions (“I was built from concrete / I don’t hurt no more” from “Everybody Loves You”) that she’s older and wiser now are accompanied with the bittersweet certainty that she will continue to learn and make mistakes. Grim Town is full of this kind of petulant defiance, which Monds-Watson plays with a somewhat self-aware, comic edge. “Knock Me Off My Feet” is a refreshingly upbeat testament to persistence, with more straightforward pop influences. The track draws upon '80s mainstays like The Cure while echoing more recent artists (including a strong semblance to Foster the People’s ubiquitous “Pumped Up Kicks.”).
“Maybe” betrays the cracks in the veneer, as Monds-Watson mourns a lost love, admitting “Maybe it’s defeat / When you look kinda funny at me.” The whole album is steeped in vulnerability; “Fall Asleep / Backseat” details Monds-Watson’s experiences as a child of divorce, alluding to the toll on her mental health and a lack of personal stability.
Although SOAK is a queer artist, her sexuality permeates her work in a matter-of-fact, unpretentious way; she doesn’t consider herself a gay artist, and her queerness exists only as a facet of the whole. Monds-Watson is quick to point out that although Ireland as a country has ways to go in terms of LGBT rights (Ireland still has not legalized gay marriage), her hometown hosts a bustling queer scene that granted her the freedom to experiment with her more masculine look.
“Growing up there, I was only ever welcomed with support and love in any situation,” Monds-Watson said in an interview for them.
Women in indie music are already few and far-between, even less so when it comes to queer women. SOAK’s aversion to being limited by her sexuality should not discount the importance of a butch representation in music. SOAK’s crisp style stands in contrast to more femme artists of the genre, who can more easily assimilate into pop conventions. It’s hard to imagine the 22-year-old alongside the likes of Hayley Kiyoko or King Princess, but her lack of precedent allows her to forge her own path as a queer artist, choosing to identify proudly without having to become emblematic of butch women everywhere. Monds-Watson is also careful to draw attention to political issues surrounding the LGBTQ community, taking into account that her personal freedoms may not translate around the world.
It’s safe to say that the feeling of outsiderdom SOAK outlines in the introductory track, although colored by her sexuality, revolves around her own emotional journey towards disillusionment. “Deja Vu” paints a portrait of a teen exhausted by her surroundings, reeling to reach beyond her status quo but limited to what she already knows. SOAK croons “No heaven in front of me / A neon light catastrophe / No unexpected emergency,” begging for any circumstances that might rupture her routine. SOAK’s vocals are both childlike and refined, the perfect vehicle for the frustrations of an aged-out teenager. She can waver between cool, laid-back stylings and hoarse, almost hymn-like cries, maintaining her gentleness through thick instrumentation and subtle chords alike.
If nothing else, Grim Town is a primer for Monds-Watson’s young adult life, a building block towards greater confidence and self-assuredness. In “Life Trainee,” Monds-Watson asserts “Let’s be honest, I’m a work-in-progress...but I’ll solve it.” This hope and determination offer a more contented departure from the earlier section of Grim Town; not only addressing and floundering in one’s insecurities but resolving to work through them and evolve. In an album characterized by youth, this sentiment stands out in its maturity. The tough façade is gone, and SOAK is looking for strength starting from the inside.