MODERN ALBUM REVIEW: Arlo Parks’ ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ (2021)

Arlo Parks first caught my attention 2019, when she released her EP ‘Sophie’. Since then she’s won BBC Introducing’s ‘artist of the year’, released a number of singles, and became an advocate for mental health charity, CALM. The London-born singer made such an impact in the latter half of 2019 that many tipped 2020 to be her year. 

COVID-19, however, reared its ugly head and forced Parks to but a hold on things. The lockdown forced her to abandon her European tour in March of 2020 and threw her plans into the the air for the foreseeable future. The pandemic didn’t hold her back completely though; lockdown saw Parks release two singles as well as announce that she was releasing an album. Her focus on carrying on regardless of the incredibly difficult circumstances is testament to the fact that she is as driven as she is talented. She dropped her debut, ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ on Friday (29/01/21). The record suggests that she has settled into her new found status as ‘the voice of a generation.’

Thematically, the record explores feelings of doubt, insecurity, and hurt as well as touching on topics like depression, sexuality, and love. The themes on the album are key to its overall relevance and Parks crafts a kind of comforting sphere around them, giving it a mature, well developed and understanding feel.

Musically, the album is well rounded and well crafted. It draws on inspirations from R&B, neo-soul,  and jazz, moulding them into a kind of soulful lo-fi bedroom pop. The sound is soft and uplifting and gives the themes of the album a good platform on which to rest. The use of guitars give a number of songs on the album a kind of uplifting extra layer, while funky bass lines and drum machines give the record its drive. Track two, ‘Hurt’ showcases the album’s funk inspiration and features a driven beat that keeps the track alive. Similarly, track 10, ‘Eugene’ features a similar funky beat that provides the track with a certain danceability. Jazz inspirations can be heard on tracks like ‘Hope’ and ‘Black Dog’ which both feature acoustic jazz chord progressions, giving the tracks a more retro feel. Contemporary R&B sounds are also present and can be heard on tracks like ‘Bluish’ and ‘Portra 400’ which both nod in the direction of one of Parks’ label mates, Loyle Carner. 

The standout in the album’s sound, however, is Parks’ voice. It weaves its way through the tracks like a floating mist and seems to bind each element of the tracks together. She often draws back her vocal and speaks, rather than sings, to give the album a more personal sound; her spoken voice sounds like an old friend offering support. The mastery on Parks’ voice doesn’t lie in her extraordinary vocal range, but in her soft and comforting expressions of melody. I think it’s important to remember that this is the voice of someone who only completed her A-Levels two years ago. 

Lyrically, the album is truly remarkable. Many of the issues Parks tackles are ones that are still struggling to be part of a wider conversation; the aforementioned ‘Black Dog’ confronts depression head on and is Parks’ own message to a close friend: “Just take your medicine and eat some food/I would do anything to get you out your room” she sings, offering a hand of support and understanding. Issues of mental health are also touched on in ‘Hurt’ which features Parks again offering a hand of support: “I know you can’t let go of anything at the moment/just know it won’t hurt so much forever.” Parks’ determination to tackle controversial themes is also showcased in track seven, ‘Green Eyes’, which throws shade at modern society’s attitude to same-sex-couples. It describes Parks’ frustration at a partner’s unwillingness to hold her hand in public. Parks is herself openly bisexual, which makes the sentiment evermore touching. It’s bold of a 20-year-old to be openly challenging stigmas present in modern society and it’s doubtless that the lyrical themes give this album a true relevance.

The delivery of the lyric is also indicative of the approach that Parks wants to take towards the issues she sings about. They are delivered over a soft and uplifting sound giving the impression that the lyrics do more to offer a hand of support than blame any other factors. The lyrics aren’t politically charged, nor are they critical of any particular thing, they simply offer support, advice, and compassion to anyone who might be struggling with the feelings she describes. Perhaps she is suggesting, through the delivery of the lyric, that a similar approach should be taken in a wider context.

On the whole I think Parks has proven beyond doubt that she’s here to say something more poignant than the average artist. Parks succeeds in delivering the debut that was expected of her; in that she has solidified her position as one of the next great lyricists. Many have said Parks is the ‘voice of her generation’ which is not a pressure I think anyone should be putting on her; a pressure like that could ruin even the most level headed of artists. It’s a phrase that is tossed around a lot too; only a few months ago it was Sam Fender who had the responsibility. I do, however, think that Parks is going places. For someone as young as her to be able to capture emotion in the way she does is a rare thing and her jazzy, funky, lo-fi beat sounds fresh enough to last.

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