By Shannon Cook
Singer-songwriter Arlo Parks’ album is an imagery-rich deep dive into relationships with the self and others, covering coming-of-age topics with a cool, calm, and collected tone.
London-born singer-songwriter Arlo Parks begins her hotly anticipated debut Collapsed in Sunbeams with a sensory-rich heartfelt poem. “I liked the idea of speaking to the listener in a way that felt intimate,” notes Parks in an interview with Apple Music. If you follow the songstress on social media, you’ll know that she regularly pens impromptu poems in the notes of her phone, heightening the authenticity of her spoken word. Like her unmediated late-night poetical musings, Parks’ indie-pop album is honest and incredibly bold. At just 20 years old, the rising star’s storytelling prowess is unparalleled.
‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ is a realistic, tangible, account of finding comfort in every day minutiae. Parks speaks of being “stretched out open to beauty however brief or violent / I see myself ablaze with joy” while “feeding your cat or slicing artichoke hearts”. At the same time, she admits her vulnerability as her “hurt” consumes her, adding a bittersweet element to these simple moments of bliss. Through the poem, Parks embraces both beauty and pain – a motif which has become inseparable from her oeuvre and frames the album’s exploration into the duality of hope and sadness.
Centring mental health
In ‘Hurt’ Parks’ centres the character, Charlie’s, anguish (“Pain was built into his body”) but later urges Charlie against accepting the long-lasting effects of pain, defiantly advising him of the temporality of feelings. The chorus’ upbeat sound foregrounds the lyrics: “I know you can’t let go […] Just know it won’t hurt so / Won’t hurt so much forever”. Parks ruminates on time as a healing agent, with velvety-smooth neo-soul vocals, employing a groove-style backing track to propel the hopeful message forwards.
Never one to shy away from mental health discourse, in ‘Hope’ Parks conjures a cathartic release of emotion. In an interview, Parks notes ‘Hope’ foregrounds the feelings of shame which trail moments of depression. However, echoing ‘Hurt’, Parks rallies against these feelings, assuring those struggling with mental health: “you’re not alone like you think you are”. While in ‘Black Dog’ Parks stays true to her word, supporting the mental health victim in a visceral way. “I’d lick the grief right off your lips”, she sings melodically over the soft strum of guitar strings, in a song which actively encourages conversations around mental health.
‘Too Good’ follows on from the self-assured, feel-good, sound in ‘Hurt’. According to Parks, an eclectic mix of sounds, from MF Doom and Tame Impala to ‘70s Zambian psychedelic rock, influenced ‘Too Good’’s funk-style sound. In ‘Too Good’ Parks sharply critiques her subject’s attempt to conceal their true feelings. Against the soft drumbeat, Parks sings “you’re too proud to tell me that you care”, before mocking her subject for being “too cool to show it”. The catchy melody conveys Parks’ refusal to play the fool to someone’s masquerade, rising above the subject’s inauthenticity with a feel-good beat.
‘Caroline’ portrays Parks as a bystander, witnessing the tumultuous breakdown of an “artsy” couple’s relationship. Harmonies inspired by The Beatles’ ‘This Boy’ heighten the outpouring of pent-up emotions as the male lover – whose “strawberry cheeks flushed with defeated rage” – insists “Caroline, I swear to God, I tried”. Departing from ‘Hope’ and ‘Hurt’’s defiant refusal to give in to pain, in ‘Caroline’ there is little light at the end of the tunnel for the couple. However, resonating with ‘Hope’, Parks encourages the lovers in ‘Caroline’ to vocalise their struggles through the singer’s rendition of the events. As a result, the track functions as a therapeutic release of emotion, and a final act of closure.
Inspired by a combination of Frank Ocean, Air, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Beach House, ‘Green Eyes’ is one of Parks’ most personal songs yet. The singer examines identity struggles within the LGBTQ+ community, singing that her object of affection “could not hold my hand in public”. She laments how others “judg[e] our love” and how such hostile attitudes cause individuals to deny their authentic selves. The hard-hitting lyrics, “some of these folks wanna’ make you cry” and “I wish that your parents had been kinder to you / They made you hate what you were out of habit”, contrasts with the warmth of the backing track; the uplifting synths resonate with Parks’ advice to those struggling, “but you gotta’ trust how you feel inside”.
Parks’ deliberate attempt to create a warmer sounding track manifests in ‘Eugene’. This track explores unrequited love with a straight girl, and the moments of inexpression which follow this dilemma: “I kind of fell half in love and you’re to blame […] I don’t know what to say”. In Parks’ music, she refuses to allow reflective moments like these to be shrouded in sadness, instead laying her thoughts bare and raw. The album, and particularly this track, reflects upon difficult lived experiences, teaching us that not knowing what to say, or how to handle these situations, is part of life. For Parks, just being open about her struggles is enough.
“Making rainbows out of something painful”
‘Bluish’ and ‘Portra 400’ embody a dreamy quality, featuring vivid imagery in abundance. But it’s the final track ‘Portra 400’ which summarises the entire album in one sentence. Against a euphoric backing track, Parks sings “making rainbows out of something painful”, perfectly encapsulating the message threaded throughout particular tracks, such as ‘Black Dog’, ‘Too Good’, ‘Hope’, and ‘Hurt’. Parks said herself that her album is about “approaching pain in a way that is unflinching”. The melodic singer-songwriter rallies against the all-consuming impact of sadness, instead challenging these hard times through her artistic expression.
Arlo Parks explores important issues such as mental health, identity, belonging, and heartbreak, borrowing from a dynamic range of musical influences to craft her unique sound. Yet, she still manages to craft light music that audiences need now more than ever. After winning the AIM Independent Music Award, and releasing her masterpiece of a debut album, the breakout musician is set for a sunny future ahead of her.