Debuting in one of the beautiful ways possible, Arlo Parks' debut album is simply mesmerising, an easy listening ride through a soft brand of R&B and Soul.
There’s something to be said about releasing Collapsed in Sunbeams as your debut album. As a strong start to her career, offering us some great singles and nothing short of an amazing album, Arlo Parks hits the ground running by giving us something truly authentic and real. Blending R&B and Soul, along with Parks’ soft voice and sometimes poetic lyricism means that it’s an album that often feels like a journey, offering, as in her own words, “vignettes and intimate portraits surrounding” her adolescence.
The album starts with the title track, but its less a song and more a brief poem accompanied with some quiet subtle music driving the ambience and displaying Parks’ way with words. She doesn’t convey feeling directly but creates a visual backdrop to the images her words conjure, driving a sense of connection between the images she creates. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s refreshing and helps lay the groundwork of the type of lyrical work to expect from the rest of the record. It then leads into the second released-single of the album ‘Hurt’, one that deals with the temporary nature of suffering, balancing its sombre accompaniment with a little hint of hope. It makes great use of a jazz-style drumming arrangement, harmonies and Parks’ voice to lull you into a sense of security that simply begs to carry you away, and it just has that easy-listening vibe that the album constantly strives towards. It’s the same type of vibe other singles have similarly aimed for like ‘Eugene’ and ‘Green Eyes’ but it makes such an impact because of how consistently high the standard is in Parks’ writing. ‘Eugene’ is a force of poetic beauty that wouldn’t stand amiss as being included in a poetry anthology if it wasn’t for the chorus repeat. ‘Green Eyes’ on the hand may be comparatively simpler, but its strong R&B stylings give an often wavy aesthetic, and it’s just too easy to be swept away in what Parks beautifully sings about.
The album doesn’t lack it’s more upbeat moments either. ‘Too Good’ starts with a nostalgic kick towards something that feels like 90s R&B, making great use of a nuanced bass guitar accompanied by its scratchy electric counterpart, while backed by those reoccurring drums that constantly pop up all over the album. It has a feeling of musical character that may be more digestible to mainstream audiences, but it doesn’t compromise on anything that Parks does elsewhere in the album. ‘Hope’ on the other hand is more bluesy with its riffs on piano, and greater variation of drum usage, favouring the use of cymbals and Hi-Hats to lend a more distinct sound in comparison to songs around it. It’s easily one of the best tracks on the album, bolstered by its poignant lyrics around feeling alienated and hopeless, unknowing of those around you who know how you feel. It’s a testament to the type of storytelling that Parks is experimenting with, as a synthesis between perspectives happens, leaving the narrator, the character and Parks rendered individual and yet equally the same. What follows is my personal favourite, ‘Caroline’, another vignette of a story where Parks is singing something that she witnesses, but the poetic depth and exploration matched with some great production value just makes it such a memorable song among many, many great songs. My favourite part is the eerie repetition and haunting harmonies of the chorus, beautifully blending the different tones of Parks’ voice that just encapture a real sense of emotion that catapults us into the story in the same way it is being sung about. It truly has a transportive quality that hasn’t received nearly as much love as it should have.
On a whole album filled with great individual songs, it’s hard not to talk about all of them, because each one deserves some merit or other. However, the one last song that stood out has to be ‘Just Go’. Putting Parks’ in the centre of the story this time, the song deals with the type of man we all recognise but then stylised in a uniquely Parks’ way. It makes great use of repetitive jazzed-up riffs on the electric guitar, often reminiscent of Nile Rodgers, but then it teems with a more relaxed drive that equates to an almost musical equivalent of an eye-roll. You recognise the archetype that Parks sings about, and the music captures a feeling of reserved indifference that just brings lyrics and music into a perfect combination. It’s smart in the way it conveys a sense of feeling and that makes it a true testament not just to Parks’ lyrics writing, but also her approach to music and accompaniment as well.
Comprised of twelve songs, Parks’ didn’t necessarily surprise me though – but that’s not a bad thing. She delivers on what we’ve come to expect from her brand of music and storytelling, and that lays the groundwork for something to build off in later years. That said, this is an album I’m going to be listening to for a long time after it’s released because I can’t enjoy it enough. Demonstrating a youthful approach to some old genres, that makes me fall in love with the various types of music present all over again, Arlo Parks may have just released the first memorable album of 2021.
Collapsed in Sunbeams is out tomorrow via Transgressive Records. Check out ‘Hurt’ down below.