Two and some years have passed since Arlo Parks’ debut single “Cola” in November 2018. The world has changed, but her music has stayed constant. In the middle of a catastrophic and isolating pandemic, her music still brazenly clings to humanity through tugging lines of melody for and about people; she reminisces about the way we care and love and yearn and ache for each other and for ourselves. Her first album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, is a tender portrait of her microcosm of the world that feels universal.
Parks envelops us in names—Charlie, Eugene, Alice, Caroline, Kaia, Violet—, a rich world of characters sang through poetry. She brings these guests in gently, carefully, and with painstaking empathy. Despite the jazzy and sometimes poppy lilt in the tracks, her lyrics paint a tableau of depression, nostalgia, and internalized pain. Parks stands in the centre of this tableau, breezing over the pain in stanzas. In “Hurt”, she reminds Charlie, whose “heart [was] so soft it hurt to beat” and has since turned to alcoholism, that his pain “won’t hurt so much forever”. In “Black Dog”, a particularly devastating song about depression, she promises Alice that she would “lick the grief right off your lips”; she “would take a jump off the fire escape // to make the black dog go away.”
The overwhelming warmth and affection Parks has for the world around her is stunning; for burnt hibiscus, reading Sylvia Plath, for amethysts masks just how young she is. Aged 20, she is just one month older than me. “My album is a series of vignettes and intimate portraits surrounding my adolescence and the people that shaped it,” Parks explained to NME; “it is rooted in storytelling and nostalgia—I want it to feel both universal and hyper-specific.” She sings openly about her bisexuality on the album, particularly in “Green Eyes” and “Eugene”. In the former, she details a two-month romance with a girl, Kaia, before their break up because she “could not hold my hand in public // felt their eyes judgin’ our love and beggin’ for blood.” Parks adds: “I could never blame you”.
I wish that your parents had been kinder to you
They made you hate what you were out of habit
Remember when they caught us making out after school
Your dad said he’d felt like he lost you
The tonal dissonance between the lyrics in the album and its rhythmic groove can distance listeners from the emotional core of the album. Nearly every song is laced with record scratches, empty drum tracks, and a variation on a guitar riff. The pleasant sameness of Collapsed in Sunbeams does not detract from how incredibly lovely and affirming Parks is throughout. Her warmth is pure sunbeam: visible categorizations of light fighting through obstacles to illuminate us and the world around her.
Image credit: Charlie Cummings via mindies.es & Creative Commons.