For a fictional place with an unflattering name, visiting ‘Grim Town’ reawakens a remarkable amount of homesickness. It’s pitched to us as a distant, dystopian wasteland reserved for “the lonely, the disenfranchised, the disillusioned, the lost, the grieving”, yet quickly proves recognisable – even to those not familiar with its creator (Bridie Monds-Watson, aka SOAK)’s hometown of Derry. ‘Grim Town’ is, to all intents and purposes, the experience of every small town rolled into one: you spend your childhood feeling lawless and falling in love there, then you abandon it for perks greater than getting “anywhere in a £5 taxi”.
Monds-Watson may have grown out of Derry, spending much of the last four years in Manchester. But the process of shedding that vulnerable outcast from ‘Before We Forgot How To Dream’ is subtly ongoing throughout ‘Grim Town’, providing brilliantly lingering subtext.
The same dreamy angst that was pushed to the fore in a folk setting is now padded out by layered indie-pop instrumentation and an early-twenties sense of hindsight. Yet the feeling of entrapment is never far away – the upbeat number Get Set Go, Kid comes across hauntingly ironic thanks to its dense reverb that nearly squashes her voice, giving it the eerie, muffled cheeriness you might hear out of an escalator speaker. Then there’s YBFTBYT, a sober, regretful lament of hedonism that you can imagine Monds-Watson penning at a bus stop at 6am on a Sunday. “You’re pissing by a public stop sign,” she sings, with enough vitriol to make it sound personal.
If there’s a risk of Grim Town’s coming-of-age cabin fever story succumbing to cliché, it’s cushioned by Monds-Watson’s relaxed perspective of what’s “grim”. She’s serious in splashes, then delivers hilarious, deadpan mockeries of middle Ireland: “Purchasing flowers outside of the local bar/Such a romantic, a pound for moulded plastic.” Or the drink-driving euphemisms, as if delivered with a wink: “So I heard you crashed the car dodging a rodent.”
‘Grim Town’ is a hard album not to enjoy, because it enjoys itself. Greater liberty is taken with Monds-Watson’s trademarked unpredictable song endings, previously used with great effect on B a noBody and Shuvels. Two minutes into Everybody Loves You, we get an instant strings high and a rosy abandonment of teenage cynicism; the claustrophobia of Get Set Go, Kid bursts stunningly into life with the strident, elated chant, “You did it, you’re alive.”
To strike a gratifyingly nostalgic chord, the project even turns to brazenly channelling the existential romance of the 80s. The Cure’s sun-soaked, synthy torment is instantly heard Knock Me Off My Feet, as are the drawn-out vowels of the New Order-esque chorus on Déjà Vu.
It’s amongst these grandiose sounds where ‘Grim Town’ is at its best, though those aesthetics are not new. What Monds-Watson adds to them, apart from a bruised, female vocal, is the impressive ability to evoke such nostalgia while honing in on smaller-scale, underdone concepts.
Singing about things that may seem trivial, however, always runs the risk of losing intrigue when lyrical substance alone is relied on. Indeed, it’s on its more stripped-back numbers where the album falters. The plodding piano chords of Crying Your Eyes Out certainly struggle to breathe life into Monds-Watson’s ode to Tesco flowers and teenage infatuation; the same goes for Missed Calls, a lethargic ballad whose melody hinges entirely on one stunning but all too brief soprano reach (“What am I to you?”).
Yet despite a couple of near misses, the obsessive attention to life’s minutiae is what underpins the album’s experience and fuels the songs’ nuanced perspective. As an album, it’s so much more than a sociological diagnosis – it’s a tale of ever-changing human outlook. Much of the chronology of ‘Before We Forgot How To Dream’ and ‘Grim Town’ probably overlaps. But the now 23-year-old Monds-Watson’s anxious social withdrawal has morphed into conscious, unleashed emotions, from rose-tinted childhood euphoria to heartbreak and rage.
The four years’ worth of lyrical and sonic advances shows, and ‘Grim Town’ has very much the feel of a grand and final farewell to the artist’s teenage years. If that’s the case, she can close that book without regrets.