20-year-old Arlo Parks is a storyteller. Inspired by the likes of Sylvia Plath, and having engrossed herself in creative writing ever since she was seven, her new album Collapsed in Sunbeams (2021) feels like a triumphant culmination of this talent.
Though the instrumentation – providing a floaty, generally lo-fi/bedroom R&B atmosphere, besides a few exceptions like the very-light-disco ‘Just Go’ – can be unremarkable to the casual listener, Sunbeams’ strength is the power of its songwriting. Parks’ creative writing background shines throughout the album – ‘Bluish’ notably sees her depicting a controlling relationship so vividly that it almost evokes physical claustrophobia: “Heart in my mouth/Please let me out of you”.
“I want it to feel both universal and hyper specific,” Parks says, describing the album as “a series of vignettes and intimate portraits”. This description may seem abstract, but it is one that any listener would immediately understand. Parks’ songs are bite-size renderings of moments of emotional impact. She includes immersive detail, whilst simultaneously being able to transcend this detail and engage sensitively with underlying themes of mental illness, identity, and love.
The eponymous intro track is a beautiful spoken-word piece setting the tone for the album. It is intimate, kind, recognising the cruelty of the world and yet finding beauty and comfort in the mundane. “Collapsed in sunbeams, stretched out open to beauty however brief or violent/I see myself ablaze with joy, sleepy eyed, feeding your cat…/You shouldn’t be afraid to cry in front of me. I promise.”
‘Caroline’ was conceived after Parks saw a couple fighting outside Hammersmith Broadway – “an exercise in people-watching”, as she calls it. Gentle guitars and reverb-packed backing vocals disguise Parks’ quiet desperation in the refrain, “Caroline/I swear to god I tried”. The unexpected chromatic progressions are particularly enjoyable. Parks imagines the couple’s story with delicate intuition, recognising not just them but the wider struggles of people in love and heartbreak. Perhaps Parks’ effectiveness is due to her being an empath; her songs seem to be written not just for herself, but for humanity as a whole.
This empathy comes across again in what is arguably the most famous track off the album, ‘Black Dog’, named by NME as “the year’s most devastating song”. Released as a single in May 2020, it received an outpouring of support. Many felt its relevance, especially in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown, in dealing with issues of mental health – both as a sufferer and a caregiver. “Let’s go to the corner store and buy some fruit/I would do anything to get you out your room”, Parks sings, helpless and vulnerable, painting the day-to-day struggle that those suffering mental health crises must overcome, whilst reminding them that they are loved regardless. The simple melodic structure fits the song’s gentle but especially indulgent atmosphere; a lush backdrop of layered pads seems to coax the listener into a safe, comfortable mental space.
Other songs like ‘Eugene’ and ‘Green Eyes’ are an intimate portrait of adolescence and attraction. Their deeper contemplation of identity and sexuality may arise from Parks’ own experiences, as the singer has stated that she is bisexual. They feel deeply personal, and yet are simultaneously relatable and welcoming. Always, her ability to subtly convey emotion and depth is on display – “I just forgot that we’ve been mates since day/I don’t know what to say”, she sings over the gentle lo-fi that seems to be a fixture in the album, cutting herself off mid-sentence and demonstrating the inner conflict that many of us in a similar position feel.
This conflict is part of what makes the album so compelling and human. A hope for better days runs high in songs like ‘Hurt’ and ‘Hope’, but Parks seems to curl into anguished despair again in ‘For Violet’: “It feels like nothing’s changing/And I can’t do this”. ‘Portra 400’, a noticeably groovier, synthier number, contains some of Parks’ most intricate lyrics (“Boiled blood star shifts in the window of my eye”), and ends the album on an ultimately hopeful note. Parks herself reveals that she wanted it to feel like the “end credits… on one of those coming-of-age films… euphoric but capturing the bittersweet sentiment of the record.”
Sunbeams certainly is bittersweet, but in such a delicate way. Parks feels like an affectionate friend, caring for you whilst managing her own troubles. She navigates a complex and changing emotional landscape with deft lyricism, reminding you that she, and all of us, are human – self-conflicted, helpless, yet also full of love. Through her writing, cushioned by soothing, dreamlike instrumentation, she understands your struggles and worries, shares her own to let you know you aren’t alone, and assures you that things get better. Sunbeams is the perfect album to have on your self-care playlist, just for those days that feel a little cloudy.