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27 January 2021

Arlo Parks’s Collapsed in Sunbeams: compassionate, clear-sighted bedroom pop

On her debut album, the 20-year-old writes about identity and mental health crises with a refreshing straightforwardness.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

“I see myself sitting beside you/Elbows touching, hurt and terribly quiet/The turquoise in my ring matches the deep blue cramp of everything,” says Arlo Parks over tranquil acoustic guitar and synths on the spoken-word title track that opens Collapsed in Sunbeams. Beginning an album – any, but in particular a debut – with a poem rather than a song may strike some as pretentious. But Parks’s lyrics are crisp, unguarded and never overly frilly, making the track gentle and inviting. 

The 20-year-old west Londoner, born Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho, takes her music seriously. Her bedroom pop sound, tinged with smart R&B rhythms and occasionally a light synth gloss, feels purposeful. Even “Too Good”, which bops along with the brightness of young love, is grounded by Parks’s emotional honesty. There are funky bass links and a jangling guitar riff, but Parks’s alto fills the song with longing. “Why do we make the simplest things so hard?” she asks, again and again.

This sincerity has come to be expected from an artist who made her name singing about the identity and mental health crises of her era. She has been called the “voice of a generation”, not least because she plays up to the role herself, having named her debut EP Super Sad Generation. Parks approaches such knotty, political issues with a refreshing straightforwardness typical of her Gen-Z peers. It’s there in the music of Beabadoobee and Billie Eilish too, but Parks’s lo-fi sound makes her music seem particularly clear-sighted.

“You’re not alone/Like you think you are,” she sings on “Hope”, one of a number of tracks on the record that explores the day-to-day effects of depression. Over brushed drums and wistful piano chords, Parks gives so much space to her message of solidarity that the song soon becomes a feel-good anthem – in spite of its haze of melancholia. Most impressively, it doesn’t slip into triteness, because Parks is never didactic or clichéd. She more often describes than analyses, acknowledging her generation’​s vulnerability with compassion and acceptance. This is, for many listeners, a lifeline in itself.

[See also: Emily Bootle reviews Rhye’s “Home”]

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On last year’s hit single “Black Dog”, Parks sings to a depressed friend. Here, her emotional insight is devastating: “Alice, I know that you are trying/And that’s what makes it terrifying,” she sings, over repetitive, gently strummed guitar chords. There is no careless optimism here, but practical references to taking medicine, and a real acknowledgement of how cruel depression can be. There’s an intimacy, too, apparent in the track’s stripped-back feel, and in the directness of Parks’s lyrics: “I’d lick the grief right off your lips,” she sings. 

While Parks’s approach to writing about mental illness is very much of her generation, she, as a poet and songwriter, is a product of much more. She allows us to trace these influences in real time, as she peppers her songs with cultural references, from the friend who does her “eyes like Robert Smith”, to the lover who quotes Thom Yorke lyrics as Parks “picks at the rips in my Nikes”. Another friend “melts into his mattress/WatchingTwin Peaks on his ones”, as Parks plays “the new Jai Paul”. The album title, Collapsed in Sunbeams, is itself lifted from Zadie Smith’s 2005 novel On Beauty

There’s a warmth in these specificities and the way Parks uses them to frame her memories. On drum-heavy “Green Eyes”, it’s the recollection of “Eating rice and beans/Painting Kaia’s bedroom” that is her entry-point into a story of impossible love, as she sings to a girl who “could not hold my hand in public”, whose parents “made you hate what you were out of habit”. These granular details act as markers, anchoring her lyrics in place and time. They make Parks’s observations sharp without being overwrought, and ever so charming. 

Sometimes her voice feels overly polite. “It’s not easy when you call me in the dead of the night/When I say I need some space I shouldn’t have to ask you twice,” she sings, feebly, on “Bluish”, over a smattering of programmed synths. It’s a couplet that demands more aggression than Parks is willing to give, preferring to remain cool and contented. Her sweet vocal inflection is reminiscent of Lily Allen’s cutesy demeanour, but where Allen leaned into Mockney, here Parks simply sounds blasé. 

But these vocal slip-ups are few and far between. On “Caroline”, which opens with a rippling electric guitar and drums effect evocative of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes”, Parks’s vocals are suddenly like syrup, smooth and with real depth. She takes on the role of bystander, describing a fight between an “artsy couple” that she overhears as she waits at the bus stop. There’s a sombre wooziness to the song, despite the track’s stable drum beat and subtle harmonies. We don’t hear any resolution to the couple’s disagreement – “Caroline, I swear to god I’ve tried” is the lingering sentiment – and Parks doesn’t offer her own analysis either. Rather, the songwriter’s competence as an observer as well as a diarist serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy, of watching others in order to better understand ourselves. 

“Collapsed in Sunbeams” is released on Transgressive Records on 29 January

[See also: Kate Molleson on the Hallé orchestra’s streamed concert]

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