Image Credit: Transgressive Records
Jack Barton reviews Arlo Parks' debut album, which offers a fresh look into the emotion and pain of relationships, friendships, sexuality, and the small things in between.
Arlo Parks had an incredible 2020 and she looks set to continue riding the wave of critical acclaim with her hotly anticipated debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams. At just 20 years old, her lo-fi sound and obvious talent for poetry have led to her quickly becoming a fan favourite for the lost generation who are currently struggling with their identity and feelings in an age of isolation. Collapsed in Sunbeams offers a delicate insight into the thoughts of Arlo and her own experiences, alongside the raw emotion associated with mental health.
As a poet, she begins her debut album with a spoken-word piece recorded in her bedroom, creating ‘an avalanche of imagery’ which generates a warm and emotional environment for the rest of the album. This piece soothes the listener with small intricate details of feeding a cat, or slicing artichokes, allowing us to enter a space where we “shouldn’t be afraid to cry in front of [Arlo]”. On the second track, ‘Hurt’, Arlo is accompanied by the consistent rhythm of drums and guitar, bringing together her thoughts on pain. Smooth and breathy vocals wrap the listener in comfort, telling them “it won’t hurt so much forever”. These feelings of happiness and hope are projected immediately in the following track, ‘Too Good’. Here, a funky guitar provides a dance-inducing backdrop to what ultimately becomes a deep insight into the issue of communication in a relationship, observing the air “fragrant and thick with our silence”. Continuing with her focus on relationships, ‘Caroline’ offers a musical commentary on agony and heartbreak via the narrative of a “fight between an artsy couple”. Once again, this song looks to the smaller details, which brings the scene to life. From someone who is normally a beautiful lyricist, this song was somewhat of a disappointment. Despite the lovely sound, it is lyrically one of the most generic songs on the album.
Comfort is a theme that runs throughout the album; with mental health issues and feelings of isolation rampant in a generation torn apart by the pandemic. ‘Black Dog’ – a metaphor for depression coined by Churchill – immediately reminds us of just how well Parks can write. One of Arlo’s most well-received songs, ‘Black Dog’ is a devastatingly beautiful product of 2020. The guitar gently melts around Parks’ reassuring vocals which comment on the stark and familiar issue of isolation during the pandemic. Simple lines such as “Let's go to the corner store and buy some fruit, I would do anything to get you out your room, Just take your medicine and eat some food” present the harsh reality of trying to pull someone you love out of a dark hole.
This stark portrayal of depression moves us towards the modern portrayal of homophobia; as an openly bisexual artist, she provides hope and says that we must trust how we feel inside and shine. ‘Green Eyes’, whilst still holding an emotional theme of feeling scared to hold hands in public, moves us away from the extremely sad ‘Black Dog’, to a brighter outlook. ‘Just Go’ and its uplifting warm instrumentals offer a cheerier insight into breakups, presenting the happy feeling of removing a toxic ex from your life. This track is certainly one of the highlights of the album, a tune that can be blasted post-breakup, guaranteed to lighten the mood.
Just as quickly as Arlo brings us into joy, she pulls us back into a dark, deep, and gritty song exploring strained friendships and the struggle to free someone from their self-imposed shackles. ‘For Violet’ explores the dark moments in life that are void of innocence, and the toll they take on us. Specifically, Arlo references the abusive father of her friend from college and recalls how she attempted to console her with little success. This song departs from her more innocent message of emotions as something that can pass and be overcome, to a much darker perception of more inescapable situations such as domestic violence.
Continuing her focus on relationships and friendships, Arlo explores the blurred lines and confusion that she experienced growing up bisexual. Referring to the agony and jealousy that come when platonic and romantic love become mixed, she sings about loving a straight girl who is in a relationship with a man. LGBTQ+ symbolism is used too; for example, in the lines, “I had a dream, we kissed, and it was all amethyst”, which refer to the colour purple, associated with lesbianism. Following on from this, the penultimate track, ‘Blue’, offers an absolute treasure trove of imagery. It’s about the claustrophobic feeling of not being able to breathe in a relationship (the title blue referring to the colour we go when choked). The catchy instrumentals depart slightly from the usual guitar focus, providing rich bass synths and kicks which are contrasted with Arlo’s high and airy vocals.
Perhaps a perfect summary of the album, Parks kicks the last song, ‘Porta 400’ off with the lyrics, “making rainbows out of something painful”. This feels like the rolling credits of the album, she sums up by looking at the breakdown of relationships “wrecked by peoples unhealthy coping mechanisms.” The production on this song differs from previous songs, with Paul Epworth taking over from Gianluca Buccellati, and perhaps offers an insight into the future of Arlo’s creative process.
As Parks faces the mounting pressure of being crowned the voice of a generation, she seems to be keeping up well. Collapsed in Sunbeams offers a fresh look into the emotion and pain of relationships, friendships, sexuality, and the small things in between. Ironically, her strength as an instrumentalist is the only thing that sells the album short; with a heavy reliance on guitar, the more alternative production towards the latter half of the album gives a taste of how adventurous Park could truly be with her production. Despite this, the album carries the weight of Arlo’s gilded reviews and appraisals and I cannot wait to see what else she has in store.
Listen to Collapsed in Sunbeams via the link below: