To say this past year has been rough would be an understatement. While the world grapples with this new virus, and the people grapple with the immediate and intense halt of our everyday life, music meets this moment like a lifeboat. During so much pain and destruction rise a soulful young woman with a voice like butter-the sonic embodiment of healing wounds, both old and new.
At just 20 years old, Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho, known professionally as Arlo Parks, has shaken the RnB scene. Her enchanting voice along with her captivating songwriting has drawn in legions of fans, among them are the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Billie Eilish, and Elton John. Riding the wave of this earned hype, Parks recently dropped her much anticipated debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams. Subdued, quiet and personal, this project succeeds in the difficult task of meeting the current moment as it explores love, heartbreak, and loneliness, and it officially introduces Arlo Parks to the world on her own terms.
Parks opens Collapsed in Sunbeams with a poem of the same name – setting the tone for an intimate experience – and immediately follows it with the song Hurt, a rumination on working through times of hopelessness and depression. A standout track on the album, Hurt feels especially timely. With this opener, Parks effortlessly describes the mental roadblock of feeling stuck, and the suspension of time that one experiences during bouts of depression. The verses tell the story of Charlie, who “drank till his eyes burned then forgot to eat his lunch.” Charlie “melts into his mattress, watching Twin Peaks, then his fingers find his bottle when he starts to miss his mum.”
Hurt’s chorus directly responds to the surrounding verses, assuring Charlie, and by extension all of us, that “it won’t hurt so much forever.” This song demonstrates Park’s storytelling abilities that place her in a separate category from her peers. Hurt is a frank and heartbreaking snapshot of depression, interlaced with a message of hope and perseverance. Though it aptly describes feelings of loneliness during quarantine, it is universal enough to live on for decades after. To balance these two contradictions takes lyrical precision and a deep understanding of the material. Hurt sets the tone for the rest of the album beautifully, clueing the listener in to a journey of world building and self-reflection.
Parks continues her upwards streak with songs like Too Good, a jazzy bedroom pop infused track about a relationship that is self-destructing because they’re too proud to show their love for each other. Too Good works due to the specificity in its lyrics; Arlo talks about nervously picking at the rips of her Nikes and her partner quoting Thom Yorke.
Though the lyricism on every track is impressive, Parks finds her lyrical magnum opus in Caroline, a masterful exercise in storytelling. Caroline tells the story of a couple in emotional demise. Parks observes as the couple stands on the corner and breaks each other’s hearts, sharing in their pain without truly hearing each other. As if relaying a story to a friend, Parks recalls this incident in a stream of consciousness, building up to the final chorus that explodes like the end of the relationship. Caroline encapsulates everything that this album does best; observe, feel, and explode.
Parks has been incredibly open about how poetry has inspired this album. She grew up reading and writing poetry, she opens her album with a poem, and much of her songs read like one. You hear echoes and callbacks to great poets of our past such as Audre Lorde, Zadie Smith, Eileen Myles and Charles Bukowski, in both theme and style. She even references Sylvia Plath in her song Eugene, insisting that it’s “[her] thing” This arsenal of poetic knowledge elevates her debut to new heights.
Collapsed in Sunbeams tells a story, not only in its lyrics but in its production. Produced by Paul Epworth Gianluca Buccellati, Sunbeams weaves sweet melodies with pounding instruments to create an atmospheric feel to all these songs. Songs like Eugene in particular feel particularly sweet, wrapping lyrics about a passionate kiss with a smooth baseline and background vocals that feel like an all-knowing whisper.
Collapsed in Sunbeams is genuinely high art. It is as deeply personal as the most personal of poems and yet, Parks lets us into this world with comfort and ease. For someone so young, she is so seasoned. This album would be a career highlight for many pros, yet Parks is just getting started. Collapsed in Sunbeams touches on themes of mental health, falling in love, falling apart, and grappling with oneself with grace and deep care. This is certainly an album to check out and Arlo Parks is certainly an artist to watch.