Through eleven impeccably written vignettes revolving around heartbreak, enduring friendship, and identity, rising star Arlo Parks’ debut album, ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’, is bedroom-pop perfection.
When Arlo Parks debuted back in 2018 with the gorgeous and smart “Cola”, it was immediately obvious the young woman from London was destined for stardom. Even before she released music, her future was known because her intelligence and artistry extended well beyond smooth bedroom-pop grooves. Coming from Nigerian, Chadian, and French ancestry and speaking la belle langue before English, Parks was writing fantasy stories in primary school. As a teenager, she immersed herself in the literary works of Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Jim Morrison, Nayyirah Waheed, and Haruki Murakami. At 17, she wrote enough songs to fill an LP, and many concerned her struggles in understanding who she is. We’re not talking about clothing choices, but as she states, with being “a black kid who can’t dance for shit, listens to emo music, and currently has a crush on some girl in my Spanish class”.
“Cola” was just the start, and two immersive and relatable EPs followed. Every song Parks released demonstrated why many, including us, have been bullish about her potential: she has an unmatched ability to communicate, provoke, and leave listeners wanting more. Her debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, is more of the same – a brilliantly-composed, ’90s-inspired, bedroom-pop collection of personal yet relatable vignettes about learning who we are. It is perfection.
The album opens with a short poem, “Collapsed in Sunbeams”. Its last line sets the tone for the entire album – “You shouldn’t be afraid to cry in front of me in moments”. These words immediately dovetail into the cool and stunning “Hurt”. With a ’90s-inspired R&B groove, Parks focuses on “Charlie” and the different ways she experiences and handles pain. Parks dives deep into her mind, recounting the ways she wishes to end the hurt. However, instead of leaving her to suffer, Parks encourages her to endure and find the light within the darkness. “It won’t hurt so much forever”, Parks repeats, using words as the antidote to Charlie’s ills.
Funky, ’90s vibes emanate on “Too Good”. With echoes of TLC and Mary J. Blige, Parks describes the daily cat-and-mouse game between two people and asks, “Why’d we make the simplest things so hard?” While the track is playful, “Bluish”is anything but. Through the sultry yet stark grooves, Parks recounts an abusive relationship and the stalker who won’t go away. With a tinge of pain in her voice, she says, “You held me so hard I went bluish / I resolve to set boundaries”. She later repeats, “Shouldn’t have to ask twice”, when demanding him to give her space. The hip “Portra”, too, finds Parks coping with depression and everyday seeking to make “rainbows out of something painful”.
The album, however, is also full of beauty and “Hope”. With a shimmering piano-driven melody, which sounds like it was derived from a ’70s jazz club, Parks reminds all that they are not alone in this world and that “we all have scars”. This sentiment is further and more stunningly articulated on the emotional “Black Dog”. As the deft guitar strums and the occasional chill of the keys consume the air, Parks’ brittle vocals attempt to calm nerves and ease minds. She attempts to heal, although she knows deep down that we may forever be prisoners in our own minds.
“Just take your medicine and eat some food
I would do anything to get you out of your room
It’s all cruel
What your mind can’t do for no reason”.
A diarist quality also blooms within the record, particularly when Parks reflects on love and sexuality. On the beautifully complicated, “Eugene”, she shares her deepest emotions, specifically having feelings for her best friend. As she keeps the secret to herself, her friend is involved with a young man who is the wall between the two.
“We’ve been best buds since thirteen,
I’ll hold your head back when you’re too lean,
I’ll hold the Taco Bell and you’ll cry over Eugene,
He was mean, he was mean.
Hey, I know I’ve been a little bit off, and that’s my mistake.
I kind of fell half in love, and you’re to blame.
I guess I just forgot that we’ve been mates since day,
Yet I don’t know what to say.”
The chilled “Green Eyes”, meanwhile, sees Parks channel Lauryn Hill and Janelle Monae in one breath and evoke Portishead and Julien Baker in the next. On the track, she encourages people, including herself, to be true to oneself. “But you gotta trust how you feel inside”, she tells her friend whose parents have ostracized her due to her sexuality. Her friends’ situation is more graphically articulated on the slow-burning, “For Violet”. Parks’ calmly explains, “I could picture terror swirling in your iris / You would say, ‘I cannot bear this, get me out of here'”. All Parks can do, however, is offer supporting words and be the shoulder to cry on. Only Violet can decide when to leave and be liberated.
Although the album is filled with remarkable stories, “Caroline” is its centerpiece. The silky smooth production and breezy R&B-pop vibes are stunning. The track is steeped in coolness, which perfectly frames Parks’ devastating tale of rage, regret, and loss.
“Ripped the hem of her skirt as she ran
Panicking and weaving through the crowds on Oxford Street
Watched his world dissolve in his hands
Tried to roll a blem then put his head between his knees
Maybe if she took a breath
She would know I did it all for her
Agony and hints of sage
Her eyes blind with disappointment
I couldn’t recognize her face
Shards of glass live in this feeling
Have to somehow stop her leaving”
Not many artists can turn life-changing, soul-crushing events and make them sound emotionally real yet sonically remarkable. In the process, the songs are worth repeating again and again to truly appreciate their all-encompassing genius. Arlo Parks has done exactly this, and at just 20 years old she’s an artist for the ages – a truly remarkable talent who is transforming how we experience and perceive music.
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