Arlo Parks – ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ review: soothing sounds and universal tales

The breakout star has crafted a quietly subversive pop record that, for all its deceptive softness, challenges old perceptions of sexuality and mental health

Arlo Parks’ rise feels very timely indeed. Her music is like a warm hug, a reassurance that everything is going to be OK when the world is dark and things seem out of control. True to form, her debut album is a sanctuary of compassionate lyricism and groove-along tunes.

While 2020 may have been a write-off for most, it certainly was a good year for the 20-year-old west Londoner. She released a stream of well-received singles, was named BBC Music Introducing Artist of the Year, appeared on the cover of NME and featured on a playlist by Michelle Obama. Most importantly however, she became an advocate for the mental health charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), which sent a powerful message of unity to her young fanbase. Languid breakout single ‘Hurt’, which appears here, epitomises Parks’ music as a soothing balm: “I know you can’t let go of anything at the moment / Just know it would hurt so, won’t hurt so much forever.”

Despite the deceptively soothing nature of her sound – soft neo-soul, acoustic guitar, that honeyed voice – Parks is an artist challenging received wisdom about mental health, a champion of free expression of self. She broke through in 2018 with the dreamy ‘Cola’, a disarmingly intimate tale of infidelity through poetic lyrics (“I miss the way you dressed all punk / With the black and the studs and the ripped up gloves / Bet she loved your tough-guy front”), illustrating complex emotions through an accessible medium – and was duly catapulted to indie stardom.

Written in the same bedroom where she recorded most of her demos, and utilising old diaries and notebooks, ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ is made up of daydream musings over jazz-meets-pop instrumentals. The 12-song collection feels more refined than her previous EPs, with slicker production from her label Transgressive, whose signees include Foals, Loyle Carner and Marika Hackman, yet maintains the intimacy that grabbed so many at the start of her career.

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The album is laced with references to artists who influenced her, from Sylvia Plath to Robert Smith (on the irresistible ‘Eugene’, she wryly notes, “[You] read him Sylvia Plath / I thought that that was our thing)”, and Parks has described the album as “a series of vignettes and intimate portraits surrounding my adolescence and the people that shaped it. It is rooted in storytelling and nostalgia – I want it to feel both universal and hyper-specific.”

This is evident from the opening title track. A spoken-word piece that underpins the sentiment of the whole record, ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ is a poignant reflection on finding beauty in pain, embracing emotional turbulence and speaking openly about your feelings. We are all learning to trust our bodies, making peace with our own distortions,” Parks recites over stripped-back guitars and gently flowing synths, “You shouldn’t be afraid to cry in front of me”.

Parks has a singular talent for tapping into sadness and turning it into something uplifting. Last year, NME named ‘Black Dog’, a track about depression, 2020’s “most devastating song”; with lines such as “Sometimes it seems like you won’t survive this / And honestly it’s terrifying,” it’s a brilliantly and sometimes painfully honest song. Meanwhile, tracks the likes of ‘Eugene’, which is about being in love with your straight friend – Parks is openly bisexual – and ‘For Violet’, which explores familial disapproval, further explore universal coming-of-age struggles.

Whenever she touches upon difficult subjects, though, Parks provides a voice of empathy and wisdom. ‘Hope’ channels the likes of Blood Orange with layered harmonies and psychedelic guitar riffs, while she sings, “You’re not alone / Like you think you are / We all have scars / I know it’s hard / You’re not alone.” Further into the track, there’s a resurrection of her spoken-word delivery as she earnestly addresses the listener: “I cannot communicate the depth of the feeling / Truth is I’m still learning to be open about this.”

Too Good’ adds a greater feeling of lightness to counteract darker themes, bringing texture to the collection. Backed by bouncy guitars, funky basslines and catchy pop hooks, Parks sings an infectious chorus: “I think you know it / Too cool to show it / Babe, you’re so good / You’re too good to be true.” Then there’s the stunning ‘Green Eyes’, which was co-written with new-gen icon Clairo and sees the pair reflect on social attitudes towards same-sex relationships: “Some of these folks wanna make you cry / But you gotta trust how you feel inside and shine.”

The closing track, ‘Portra 400’, rounds off this vivid portrait of young adulthood through delicate instrumentals and lines such as “Making rainbows, out of something painful / Getting fried as hell / And dodging gravestones.” This finale perfectly summarises the profound thought patterns interwoven throughout ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’.

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Arlo Parks may be the voice of Gen Z, but there’s no doubt that this is a universal collection of stories that’ll provide solace for listeners of all ages and backgrounds for decades to come.

Details

Release date: January 29

Record label: Beatnik, Transgressive

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