Arlo Parks first sprung onto the scene in 2019, when she released her EP, ‘Sophie’. The EP gave audiences a first taste of her poetic lyricism and jazz-pop influences; and so compelling was it was that it lead to the London-born singer being named BBC Introducing’s 2020 ‘artist of the year’. The impact she had made with such a limited release meant that many tipped 2020 to be her year. COVID-19, however, reared its ugly head and forced Parks to put a hold on her rapidly accelerating career; 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 the release two singles and the announcement of an album, ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’, which she dropped in late January. The album arrived amid a wall of hype – always a dangerous thing – but for Parks, no amount of pressure could prevent her from calmly settling into her status as ‘the voice of a generation.’
Her status came from the themes explored on the album; feelings of doubt, insecurity, and hurt are foregrounded amid topics like depression, sexuality, and love. The record’s themes are key to its overall relevance and Parks crafts a comforting sphere around them, giving the whole record a mature, well developed and understanding feeling.
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 one of tender and uplifting melodies which give the themes of the album a good platform on which to rest. The use of guitars give a number of songs an extra layer of complexity, while funky bass lines and drum machines give the record its drive. Track two, ‘Hurt’ showcases the album’s funk inspiration and features a rolling, driven beat that keeps the track lively and engaging. 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’; the former of which combines jazzy piano chord progressions with simplistic bass and guitar lines to craft a minimalist and effective backdrop for the vocal. 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 Parks’ label mate, Loyle Carner.
The album’s standout 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 feel; her spoken voice often sounds like an old friend offering guidance. The mastery of her voice doesn’t lie in her extraordinary vocal range, but in her soft and comforting expressions of melody.
Lyrically, the album is truly remarkable. Many of the issues Parks tackles are ones that are, for a range of reasons, still not part of a wider conversations; 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 such a young artist to be openly challenging stigmas present in modern society and it’s doubtless that the lyrical themes give this album a true relevance in contemporary society. 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.
The album was received brilliantly amongst both Parks’ listeners and the wider music press; it peaked at no.3 in the UK charts after its release and went on to win Parks the ‘best breakthrough’ award at the 2021 Brits and, most recently, it won possibly the most prestigious award in British music: the Hyundai Mercury Prize the same year.
There is, of course, more to music than who wins what awards, but in winning the Mercury Parks’ has affirmed herself as one of the leading lyricists of her time and her successes prove her ability and drive to say something more affecting than the average artist to be what’s marks her out to be one the voices in contemporary music.