“I see myself sitting beside you,” Arlo Parks says on the spoken-word opener to her debut album. And that’s exactly how it feels to listen to ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’: as if the poetic, multifarious London artist is sat right next to you, telling you about everything she’s seen and heard that day.
You’d think Arlo Parks had been giving interviews for decades, her demeanour as self-assured as somebody twice her age. The twenty-year-old defies the quiet serenity that circles her music, and talks articulately about everything from classical piano to James Baldwin. She appears equipped to carry the hype that’s followed her BBC Music Introducing success. After two EPs, her 2018 debut single ‘Cola’ catapulted her into the higher echelons of “one to watch” when featured on Michaela Coel’s acclaimed TV show ‘I May Destroy You’. Now Parks can count Michelle Obama among her fans.
Parks grew up around jazz, soul, and eighties French pop, which fed her taste for artists like King Krule, MF Doom, and Solange – all of which you can hear in her work, along with song-writing greats like Elliott Smith and Patti Smith. But the album’s name comes from the novel of another Smith – Zadie Smith, also a west London writer who found young fame with her emotionally-attuned observations, outsider stance, and chatty vernacular.
‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ is built on everyday detail: noticed things and lived experience. Parks watches a couple break up at a bus stop on ‘Caroline’ with detached empathy, then finds herself in the thick of emotion on ‘Eugene’, a song about unrequited love for a best friend. “You play him records I showed you / Read him Sylvia Plath,” she sings, “I thought that that was our thing / You know I like you like that.” The story is specific, but the sentiment is universally, painfully relatable.
Wider platitudes don’t work as well as her raw observation. The line “Making rainbows out of something painful” fixes too neatly to the record’s manifesto and social climate, as if Parks knows she’s giving good quote. She doesn’t need catchphrases: her writing already does that work. Sometimes she’s candid – “He would always act so sarcastically charming / Wonder if he realized how much he hurt his kids” – and sometimes poetic, as with the quiet power of “shards of glass live in this feeling” or “stretched out open to beauty however brief or violent”.
Shot through with flavours straight from a Nigel Slater recipe book – artichoke, sage, strawberry, hibiscus – ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ actually dwells in the moment of a Gen Z kid: Jai Paul, Taco Bell, Twin Peaks, Nikes, Oxford Street. Serious subjects like homophobia and depression accompany these references, not because Parks is on an earnest mission to moralise, but because such issues inevitably pass her line of vision.
As a Gen Z artist, Parks inherits a mighty wealth of musical influence, and it’s a satisfying change to see the likes of Thom Yorke and Robert Smith claimed by her instead of the legions of white male guitar bands thronging at the door. ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ runs on that indie simplicity, coupled with jazz guitar, trip-hop beats, and occasional shafts of sax. But Parks really shines on tracks like ‘Bluish’ and ‘Portra 400’, where she indulges in gentle rap and R&B, calling to mind Sade and Lauryn Hill.
Overall, though, Parks’ lyrical skill carries the music, rather than other way round. A smooth, safe ease shapes the record: nothing will jump out and surprise you or make you uncomfortable. But there’s a steeliness in not being too showy. Playing to her strengths as a writer has paid off, for ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ does everything a debut should – it hooks you into Arlo Parks’ world, whether she’s sitting beside you or not.