By Daniel Barrett
Sleeping-in on a Sunday morning, waking up to soft rays of sunlight peeking through the blinds. Beginning the day with a hot shower as the smell of fresh-brewed coffee floats its way over from the kitchen. Taking that first step outside on a warm, breezy afternoon, only to make it a mile down the road and get caught in a thunderstorm with no umbrella.
Sure, these could all just be elements of a painfully ironic day, but in this case, they’re the best possible illustration of the tranquil sorrow found across Arlo Parks’ debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams.
Arlo Parks is a 20-year-old singer-songwriter from Hammersmith, West London. At just 18 years of age, Parks made her musical debut with the release of her single, “Cola.” The track’s laidback, neo-soul instrumental paired effortlessly with Parks’ velvet-like voice and, seemingly overnight, her path to stardom was all but inevitable.
Following the lightning-rod success of “Cola,” Parks got to work in 2019 with a slew of new music. She kept her growing fanbase satiated with single-after-single; eventually amassing enough tracks to put together two separate EP’s.
From classic R&B to bedroom-pop to neo-soul to lo-fi, each new track was just a small sample-size of Parks’ artistic capabilities. It was apparent to anyone listening that she was just scratching the surface of her skyrocketing potential.
On January 29, 2021, Parks released Collapsed in Sunbeams to widespread critical acclaim and commercial success alike. If her previous works were the scattered seeds of a promising young career, then Parks’ debut album is the blooming garden that grew from the soil. Luscious, bright production intertwines itself with a soulful conglomerate of instrumentation that always manages to remain ear-catching, while never taking the focus away from Parks’ brutally honest, yet captivating storytelling.
Parks describes the album as, “A series of vignettes and intimate portraits surrounding [her] adolescence and the people that shaped it,” and this sentiment is reflected in each-and-every track. With the help of her producer and co-writer, Gianluca Buccellati, Parks crafts vivid images of heartbreak, depression, isolation, and self-acceptance through a poetic lens. Her method of storytelling is every bit as spoken word as it is melodic, and her silky-sweet tone is almost enough to fool you into a false sense of serenity.
Beneath the radiant exterior lies more brooding darkness that bubbles to the surface in the form of Parks’ adolescent traumas. In many cases, the traumas aren’t even directly hers. Much of the subject matter on this album deals with the individual plights of loved ones around her, told from Parks’ “outside-looking-in” perspective. A prime example of this comes in one of the album’s lead singles, “Black Dog.”
Over a looped, harp-like acoustic guitar, monotone bassline, and occasional sparkling synth, Parks tells the story of a friend battling severe depression. This “black dog” as she describes it, leaves the nameless friend stuck in bed for days on end, unable to escape the restraints of their own room. In a gentle, lullabied cadence, Parks details the anguish that comes with watching a loved one become consumed with grief—and the helpless state she finds herself in as a mere witness.
Parks offers assistance in any way she can, but as time goes on, she begins to understand how insurmountable this black dog may really be. Parks refuses to let the listener off the hook with any happy endings or resolution because it wouldn’t be honest. Instead, she leaves us with one repeating line echoing into the distance:
“It’s so cruel, what your mind can do for no reason”.
Sonically, every ounce of Collapsed in Sunbeams is opulent bliss—wrapping the listener in a warm, safe embrace. Each instrumental does its best to offer a unique slice of the more idyllic sides to life. “Hope” is a breezy, jazz-influenced cut that conjures up images of wandering the streets of Soho, sifting through the hustle-and-bustle with no destination in mind. “Just Go” is an evening cruise along the California coast with its groovy bassline, wandering piano, and beachy guitar. Each track is loose, without ever becoming careless.
Similarly, Parks’ style of songwriting is effortless and free-flowing, but never without purpose. In the same way that “Manchester by the Sea” reinvented Hollywood’s portrayal of cinematic grief with its lack of over-dramatization and concentration on more grounded dialogue, Collapsed in Sunbeams rewrites the script when it comes to autobiographical lyricism.
Parks does very little in the way of complicating any narratives with flowery abstractions or elaborate metaphors. She evokes emotion through telling stories that are personal to her, yet not exclusive to just her life.
The beauty comes from the way that we. As listeners, we can see ourselves on the canvas that she is painting. From universal feelings of jealousy on “Eugene” where she sings, “Seein’ you with him burns, I feel it deep in my throat/you put your hands in his shirt, you play him records I showed you” to more specific lines like, “You smell like burnt hibiscus, I still feel blessed even when we’re b*tching/you stole my spine for a minute, so I cut my hair just to make you smile,” on “Portra 400,” Parks manages to emit relatability without ever reaching for it.
Collapsed in Sunbeams is an exercise in creating beauty out of ugly situations. It reveals the innate contradictions that come with our collective human experience. Seeking resolutions that don’t exist, trying to pull the light out of the dark.
Parks says it best with the album’s unofficial thesis statement: “Making rainbows out of something painful.”
Featured Image by Arlo Parks