20-year-old singer-songwriter and poet Arlo Parks has been attracting critical attention in her home country of the UK for a couple years now, and she’s managed to bring that energy across the Atlantic just in time for her debut studio album. With a deeply soulful sound drawing influences from funk and jazz yet recorded in the intimate style of a bedroom pop album, Parks weaves together narratives of the lives of characters both real and made up in her distinctly poetic fashion. It becomes somewhat clear over the course of the album that Parks’ strengths lie more in poetry than music, as the funk grooves and melodies ultimately become somewhat repetitive the deeper you get into the project. Still, the outstanding musicality and oftentimes mind-opening and touching lyrical moments as Parks tells the harrowing stories of some of her close friends certainly make this a necessary listen and establishes her as a major artist to watch going forward. With a little help from the mastermind producer Paul Epworth, she’s well on her way to superstardom.
After opening the album with its brief, titular spoken-word piece, immediately catapulting the listener into a place of familiarity and intimacy with the speaker, the first musical moment is the track “Hurt.” One of Parks’ favourite lyrical tendencies is to build a narrative around a named character, something that she does on almost every track here, and begin to build up their personality and world through their experiences, worries, and desires. The first one we are introduced to is Charlie, one with a story that might sound all too familiar during a global pandemic – feeling emotionally desensitized and getting lost in alcohol and TV, waiting for a prolonged pain to end. Parks tells quite a few stories of people going through tough times here, but as the narrator she almost always approaches them from a positive or helpful angle. Over a fuzzy yet knocking live drumbeat and a catchy bass loop, her personable vocals layer up in the chorus to deliver an obvious but often-necessary reminder – no hurt lasts forever. “Too Good” is one of the two tracks here with Epworth’s touch, and it shows. With Parks’ beautiful and breathy vocal in a bit of a higher register that cuts through the slightly lo-fi mix in a striking way, the addition of harmonies in the chorus reminiscent of 90s pop and a central, memorable hook asking a pressing question – “why do we make the simplest things so hard?” – brilliantly enhance the funk foundation. The track “Hope” begins to show some of Parks’ penchant for jazz as well, some blue notes creeping into the piano chords as the shuffling percussion creates a spotlight for another of Parks’ stories. Reassuring a real-life friend dealing with pandemic-induced depression that she’s not alone, even at this time, she delivers another uplifting and musically refreshing chorus that’s exactly what we need right now.
The track “Caroline” might have one of the most interesting song concepts here, but one of the least engaging musical arrangements, beginning to show the slight disconnect between Parks as a poet and Parks as a musician on this project. Parks describes the experience of observing a romantic couple fighting in public, turning the man’s pleading for forgiveness as the woman storms off into the song’s hook. The way she describes the people down to the flush in their cheeks is a truly inspired use of language, but the more acoustic, guitar-driven angle of the track doesn’t fit her soulful vocals as well, especially in the layered chorus. The jazzier, intentionally dissonant harmonies applied to some drawn-out notes sound out of place in a more straightforward musical world. “Black Dog” is another heart-wrenching track that sees Parks grappling with a friend’s depressive episodes, her voice at its absolute sweetest over some slowly strummed bright guitar chords as she attempts to coax her out of her room. Describing the great lengths she would go to just to take a simple walk with her, Parks sounds believably defeated as she delivers her central, repeated lyric: “It’s so cruel what your mind can do for no reason.” “Green Eyes,” co-written by fellow critical darling Clairo, comes from an equally deep and personal place. Parks, who belongs to the LGBTQ+ community, consoles and encourages a former partner who becomes afraid to fully be herself in public as a result of her unsupportive family. The funk bassline that echoes throughout the track begins to feel like déjà vu around this point in the album, but Parks’ intentions are beautifully pure.
The track “Just Go” is a welcome highlight from a musical standpoint in the later goings of the album, as I begin to admire Parks’ poetry but not necessarily the music behind it. With a bit more of an upbeat tempo and building the track around a fantastic syncopated guitar hook that offers a bit of novelty amidst the consistent groove throughout the entire album, the track is the closest Parks comes to a more modern R&B approach here – a couple of her vocal passages certainly remind me of The Internet’s work. The track sounds sunnier and more positive than almost anything else here and I can already picture myself strolling down the street in summer with it blasting through my headphones, but at it’s core it actually sees Parks making the difficult decision to cut a toxic relationship out of her life despite the ties she still feels to them. “For Violet,” on the other hand, is the most sluggish track on the album as Parks goes for a more sensual alt-R&B angle that falls flat due to her penchant for repeating a central, relatable phrase on the chorus – the slower tempo making it stretch on and on.
“Eugene” sees Parks offering her own spin on a familiar musical LGBTQ+ narrative, finding herself analyzing her straight friend’s relationship troubles and wishing she would simply be with her instead. Parks breaking from lyrical positivity for the first time as she grapples with jealousy, switching perspectives by telling her own story as well, is a narrative highlight here. The album’s two closing tracks, “Bluish” and “Portra 400” continue this narrative flip as Parks continues to speak as herself, offering two more poetic tales about her personal struggles that are fantastic in the moment but ultimately don’t leave a memorable closing stamp on the album due to their repetitive instrumentals.
While not the stunning musical achievement she may have hoped for, Collapsed in Sunbeams is a spellbinding debut for a very young artist that transcends the label of a musician. Whatever field she decides to work in in the future, it’s going to be highly exciting to watch this mind at work. If the musical aspect is developed even a tiny bit further, everyone needs to watch out.
Favourite Tracks: Hope, Black Dog, Just Go, Too Good, Hurt
Least Favourite Track: For Violet