Alice Phoebe Lou has described Paper Castles as an album about “growing into a woman…about feeling small and insignificant but finding that to be powerful and beautiful,” and it truly feels like a coming-of-age record. This newfound maturity that only comes with aging runs throughout the album, as she sings about finding her own place. It’s a journey marked by the embracement of all the qualities that make Lou stand out.

Part of the struggle of growing up is finding your sense of self-worth while also being okay with your own small piece of the world. Paper Castles opens with Lou giving equal value to her own “Little Spark” against the universe’s “big spark.” A Theremin adds an alien exclamation point to the tune. Over feather-light touches of guitar on “Galaxies,” Lou find freedom in measuring life against the vastness of the Milky Way. She sings serenely that we’re “a speck of dust,” but concludes that “We are alive today/ We’ll be ok.” When the synths take the lead, they sparkle out like a meteor shower at night.

With more years comes more experience in all things, including love. Two of the best songs on Paper Castles come from Lou passionately singing about what she wants and what she doesn’t want out of relationships.
“Something Holy” is an ode to the beauty and physicality of love, with vocal tics and yelps of pure excitement. “Thank you for showing me that I’m not alone,” she repeats tranquilly. On “Skin Crawl,” though, she adds some aggression, forcefully rejecting patriarchy and misogyny.

Similarly, on “My Outside,” Lou pushes against societal ideas of what a woman should look like. The accompanying music is joyous in its assertion of independence, propelled by fun, funky synths. “New Song” broadens her rebuff of normalcy, singing “I wanna roll with the misfits…Give in to the bliss/ Grab life by her wrist.”

Besides her lyrical prowess, Lou’s strength lies in her ability to craft understated songs, with little more than a guitar line, background synths and some percussion. When it comes to such chill, low-key tunes, it’s difficult to keep an audience’s attention. Such an approach could so easily generate dull sounds. But Lou’s eccentricities frequently perk up the ears, whether through the jazzy chords of “Nostalgia” or the digital flutter of the title track.

The only weak moments on this record occur in the absence of those quirks. The unmemorable guitar and keyboard work on “Fynbos” lets down a great lyric about childhood memories. “Ocean” also doesn’t elevate the stormy, dark lyrics with ear-catching music.

While not without a few flaws, Paper Castles is a strong step forward for Lou. It’s easy to listen to this record and get wrapped up in the confidence she displays. With a unique voice and a meticulous attention to detail, she’s carving her own path—not for others to follow, but to encourage them to chart their own course.

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