20-year-old Arlo Parks is very quickly climbing the ranks as an entrenched singer-songwriter. Her debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams, released on the 29th of January, includes some pre-established hits like “Eugene”, “Cola”, and “Black Dog”. Releasing these singles well in advance of her album drop was an effective tactic, as the filler songs sadly don’t live up to the hype.
The album opens with a spoken-word poetry mounted on a simple guitar pattern that sees Parks imitating the opening of a T.S. Eliot poem, but without the conviction. The wateriness of the first track sets listeners up on the wrong foot, because - despite the confused underbelly – the sound on the album is beaty and gently energetic. This is proved so in “Hurt”, track number 2. Here, Parks introduces the album-dominating concept of individual vignettes. “Hurt” poignantly tells the story of Charlie, a character falling deep into a black hole of self-medication. Parks narrates the story with arresting honesty, an analogue of the country-Americana process of sketching scenes of cowboys and alcoholics. This impressive feat quickly becomes less impressive though, as she proceeds to inundate the album with more and more tales of the likes of Millie or Kaia, that it becomes less endearingly personal and more disengaging. In "Caroline", Parks flips it so that she is the bystander watching the demise of a relationship rather than outlining hypothetical ones, and from here we get a good run of songs which are some of the best on the album.
"Black Dog" - released May of last year - puts Parks back in the narrative. This song is heart-wrenching and touching and is an incredibly honest view of the second-hand struggle of depression. Parks, as the speaker, begs her friend Alice to leave her room, and the whole song successfully removes all the media-insinuated dramatics of having a friend with a mental illness, and instead hones in on how much she loves her friend. The focus on her adoration for Alice, her tactful care as she suggests eating some food and taking medication are the perfect examples of how delicate the relationship between struggling friends is: a consolidation most of Parks' listeners would personally recognize.
I'd lick the grief right off your lips
The album conflicts between two sounds: one of which is the acoustic In Rainbows-inspired ballads ("Eugene", "Black Dog" and "Caroline"), the other being an early 2000s funk sound á la Vulfpeck. The laid-back R'n'B found in most non-single tracks makes for really chill listening, but sadly doesn't really pull off the funky vibe the album is going for, due in part to the lack of energy in Parks' style. Her delicate poetry mixed with heavy bass on songs like "Just Go" don't really meld; even the winding guitar and jumpy drums can't inject her silky voice with any immediacy.
It's clear that Parks isn't satisfied with having her sound defined solely by her hits, which is brave and clever. Being 20 and having your style pre-ordained is definitely not ideal, so her attempt at a soulful record is definitely a solid building block that'll propel her where she wants to go next. Going forward, it'd be great to see her expand the boundaries of her songs. Right now, the stories of Caroline, Millie, Kaia, etc. are almost too domestic for them to be accessible: to widen the parameters of her stories and to lean into the Lianne La Havas-sounding beats would be an exciting way forward for Arlo Parks. For a queer woman to be reaching such mainstream heights at 20, though, is an incredible feat, and I look forward to her future releases.