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Arlo Parks: Collapsed in Sunbeams

Arlo Parks has great taste in music. On her debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams, the British singer-songwriter and poet wears her influences on her sleeve: The descending arpeggios of “Caroline” immediately recall Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes,” the static hum and sweeping beat of “For Violet” pay homage to Portishead, and watercolor guitar effects throughout the record evoke Beach House. She even namedrops Thom Yorke and Robert Smith in her lyrics, and yet, Parks establishes herself brilliantly as her own unique artist by writing lyrics and calling on her musical muses as the same perceptive observer with a captivating attention to detail.

The album kicks off with the titular poem read by Arlo over gentle fingerpicking and glowing tones. She describes herself mesmerized by a lover or partner or friend doing mundane chores, “Feeding your cat or slicing artichoke hearts,” before assuring, “You shouldn’t be afraid to cry in front of me. I promise.” The last words are a mumbled whisper. Arlo watches friends suffer depression, abuse and heartbreak throughout Collapsed in Sunbeams, and she never knows quite what to say.

Instead of offering advice or consolation, Parks thus strives to help us feel the pain she sees her friends going through by telling their stories, so that we might feel less alone. It’s no mistake that the first sung lyrics on the record tell us that “Charlie drank it ‘til his eyes burn.” “Hurt” offers a twist on the Johnny Cash cover of the same name and its themes of self-medication, substance abuse and the desperate desire to feel anything as Arlo chronicles Charlie’s struggles instead of her own. A simple but pronounced bassline leaves space for her intimate voice between full choruses of harmonized vocals and subtle saxophone tones, and her lyrical position as a bystander keeps the song from sinking too deep into its heavy themes for the upbeat instrumental tone.

“Too Good” follows as one of the album’s catchiest tunes with bright electric guitar strumming and lush harmonies before changing pace with “Hope.” Here, soulful piano chords and a jazzy hip hop beat recall Lauryn Hill as Parks sings her most explicitly sympathetic chorus: “We all have scars/ I know it’s hard/ You’re not alone.” Reverbed guitar and a spoken word bridge – one of many on the record – add some colorful personality and stunning imagery with lines like “Wearing suffering like a silk garment or a spot of blue ink.”

“Caroline” opens with its Radiohead inspired arpeggios, but it’s Arlo’s innocent and confident vocals that shine alongside glistening production. Her voice has an airy quality in the vein of Billie Eilish or Lorde, but Parks has a distinct power behind her singing that grows as she approaches the high end of her range instead of fading to a whisper. Bright guitar flourishes remind of Coldplay’s best dream pop efforts, and Arlo carries the outro with a defeated “I swear to God I tried.”

“Black Dog” is the most laid back and perhaps least exciting track here with its repetitive acoustic strum, but Arlo’s futile and “terrified” desire to “lick the grief right off your lips” is yet another striking image. “Green Eyes” and “Just Go” are melancholy jams, the latter of which the 20-year-old Parks described with remarkable maturity as “a breakup song that said, simply, ‘No grudges, but please leave my life.’”

The song that sticks out most in Collapsed In Sunbeams’ tracklist is the trip hop slow jam “For Violet,” but a familiar mood and Arlo’s singing make this track a highlight and welcome changeup rather than an outlier. Harmonizing backing vocals in the chorus sound creepily robotic while Parks’ very human voice laments, “It feels like nothing’s changing.” The song beautifully channels her frustration as she tries to balance helping her friends with protecting herself, a challenging theme as the album approaches its climax.

The downtrodden, exhausted “Eugene” documents Arlo’s quiet crisis of unrequited love. After nine songs of reacting to her friends’ struggles, she finally gives into her own, lashing out at the blurred line between friendship and something more: “I kind of fell half in love and you’re to blame/ I guess I just forgot that we’ve been mates since day.” Like in the album-opening poem, she can barely finish her sentence as she chokes up, and ethereal production places the song in a teary-eyed dream state. Finally on “Bluish,” Arlo masterfully pairs sensory overload in her lyrics with subdued Gorillaz-esque electronics to create a sense of claustrophobia, and closer “Portra 400” continues the glitchy end to the album.

After a few years of promising singles, Arlo Parks has arrived with an astoundingly mature and enjoyable debut album. As she herself sings on Collapsed in Sunbeams’ closer, the young artist has put together a stunning display of her talent for “making rainbows out of something painful.”

The young artist has put together a stunning display of her talent for “making rainbows out of something painful.”
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Rainbows out of pain

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