Album Review: Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams

[Transgressive; 2021]

The inviting title of Arlo Parks‘ debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, is taken from a Zadie Smith novel, On Beauty. Clearly a fan of Smith’s work, one wonders if Parks also feels a certain kinship with her: both West London artists, of mixed-race, both preternaturally talented, and both hailed upon their debut as a voice of a generation. Yet Smith was 25 when she dazzled the literary scene with White Teeth; Parks is somehow still only 20 and astounding hype has been placed on her shoulders for a long time before now.

It brings pleasure to write, then, that Collapsed in Sunbeams fulfils most of its undue expectations, a collection of gentle poetics and piercingly observant songwriting that revels in its intimacy. Born Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho in Paris in 2000 (the year White Teeth came out), a turn from poetry to writing lyrics led to the 2018 single “Cola” and then two acclaimed 2019 EPs, Super Sad Generation and Sophie. Her vulnerable reckonings with mental health, body issues, and sexual identity led to her being crowned as a bard of her Super Sad Generation.

Judging by her first full album, she is as well placed as anyone for such a title. Parks writes extremely naturally, a sense of her and listener being locked in an intimacy normally only afforded to old friends. The diaristic narratives drop names frequently, characters soon inhabiting our own world: there’s tracks called “Caroline” and “Eugene”, and mentions of friends named Charlie and Millie (and even more famous people like Thom Yorke and Robert Smith). We are treated to both tales of these friends and observed strangers; Parks is a keen cataloguer of life unfurling around her.

She is also always both inside and out of these tales. “Hurt” is about the pain of the friend called Charlie, who “drank it ‘til his eyes burned” and “pain was built into his body”. While Parks acknowledges his struggle, she then offers a platitude from her observant position: “Won’t hurt so much forever.” Sometimes it’s all that can be really done. “Hope” discusses the friend called Millie, “reminiscing about the apricots and blunts on Peckham Rye”; later she similarly says “We all have scars / I know it’s hard”.

Love and relationships are never far away in the songs. The heartbreaking “Eugene” sees her mourn her love for a straight friend who was infatuated with a man named Eugene. On the lightly bouncing “Too Good”, she wryly recounts the difficulties of being in a relationship with someone who’s “too cool to show it”. One of the standout tracks, the downtempo R&B “Caroline”, sees her sadly watch the dying love fight of a warring young couple in public: “I was waiting for the bus one day / Watched a fight between an artsy couple escalate.” Parks has described herself as an empath and it’s never more in evidence than in “Black Dog”, where she watches a friend struggling with mental illness, relates and struggles herself: “Sometimes it seems like you won’t survive this / And honestly it’s terrifying,” she pleads in the opening verse, a scarring sentiment.

The irony of Collapsed in Sunbeams is that Parks’ greatest strength also gives the album its most noticeable weaknesses. We are mainly here for her connecting songwriting, which means that the production – by Gianluca Buccellati – is restrained to allow her direct words to flow at their own behest. “Just Go”, a twinkling and bright pop piece, and “For Violet” with its sonorous bass are two of the only true diversions from the smooth and contained R&B throughline. The tender guitars on “Black Dog” are the right vessel for that song’s sad story, but it usually remains at the same pitch. Parks also emotes simply and seriously and the consistent cadence can lead to a nullifying effect over 12 tracks.

Could the titular spoken-word piece that opens the album be Parks in her future truest form? She certainly commands like Zadie Smith can; she keenly observes just as Smith does in her excellent essays too. After her debut, Smith managed to sustain her success over a long and continuing career; there seems little doubt after listening to Collapsed in Sunbeams that Parks, in whatever artistic form, will do the same.