In case you weren’t aware. we’re living in stressful times, and a lot of people are justifiably upset about it. The planet’s been swept by a pandemic, drastic climate change, and any number of deadly -isms, and even as we take steps to fix our mistakes, the future seems uncertain. The constant cycle of news and social media updates continues to spew our anger, insecurity and fear into an endless feedback loop. It goes without saying that we could all afford to be a little nicer—to others, of course, but most of all to ourselves.
Arlo Parks seems to have taken this message to heart on her debut full-length, Collapsed in Sunbeams. The 20-year-old British poet and bedroom-pop star exudes a profound kindness and warmth throughout Sunbeams. On each track, she embodies the sort of comforting presence we all wish we had in our lives—the friend who encourages us to take care of and love ourselves even when we’re not up to the task.
Parks has been extremely vocal about her varied influences, ranging from ‘60s girl groups to ‘70s African psychedelia. To hear her and co-producer Gianluca Buccellati meld these inspirations into Sunbeams’ collection of breezy, jazzy trip-hop nuggets is truly wondrous. You hear in their rich, soulful arrangements traces of the neo-R&B stylings of Frank Ocean, Solange and the Internet; the indie-folk intimacy of Sufjan Stevens; the melancholy of Portishead; touches of dancehall and Chic-esque funk.
Anchored by Parks’ raspy, honey-sweet alto, the tunes crackle and sparkle, retaining a hushed starkness no matter how anthemic they grow. In other words, these songs are guaranteed to land spots on a million “Summer Chill” playlists in the coming months. That’s hardly a bad thing, though, as Spotify’s algorithms seldom conjure up work of such genuine depth and beauty.
Sunbeams also works beautifully as a document of city life as a young queer Black person—with all the turbulent friendships and romantic baggage it entails. It’s a scrapbook of sorts, laced with bits of spoken-word poetry and bittersweet vignettes. Almost every track details an interaction with a specific troubled friend or would-be partner whom she addresses by name.
There’s Charlie, the alcoholic loner who “can’t let go of anything at the moment” on the pensive, spare “Hurt.” There’s depressed and isolated Millie on “Hope” (“Won’t call my friends, I’m persuaded that they’ll leave in the end/Can’t feel my legs, I’m feeling like a liar at best”)—on the chorus, Parks repeatedly reassures her atop woozy guitar and a slick piano hook that this is not the case. “Let’s go to the corner store and buy some fruit,” she says to Alice over the gentle strums of “Black Dog.” “Just take your medicine and eat some food/I would do anything to get you out your room/It’s so cruel what your mind can do for no reason.”
Whether these names are real or not is hardly relevant. That the stories feel lived-in testifies to Parks’ gift for naturalistic songwriting with an eagle-eye for small details—tastes, scents, faces. Her lyrics are simplistic, almost conversational—uncomplex but never vapid, each line bursting with unspoken weight and meaning. She peppers them with the hip cultural hallmarks her generation inherited from their parents (Twin Peaks, the Cure, Radiohead)—as she does in her arrangements, she’s using art to bridge the gap between the past and present.
Major standout “Green Eyes,” co-written with fellow rising zoomer idol Clairo, serves as a consolation message to ex Kaia (not her real name), whose fear of judgment from her parents and the outside world cut their relationship short. Where Parks could have expressed bitterness towards Kaia’s inability to “open up” or “rise above” her circumstances, she’s instead endlessly understanding (“I could never blame you, darling”) and compassionate. “Some of these folks wanna make you cry,” she sings on the hazy, heartrending chorus, “But you gotta trust how you feel inside/And shine, and shine.” It’s one of the first truly great queer anthems of the decade.
And it’s not just her friends—Parks’ lyrics can also illumine the lives of people she meets in passing. This is most evident on “Caroline,” a chilly, drizzly fly-on-the-wall narrative that faintly recalls Dido’s 2000 hit “Thank You.” Through Arlo, we vicariously witness the fallout of an “artsy couple’s” broken relationship at a bus stop. He spills his coffee, she throws her necklace at him; she storms off, the hem of her skirt ripping; amid “agony and hints of sage,” he screams, “I swear to God I tried!” A tragic snapshot brought to empathetic life.
But even the sweetest of guardian angels are only human. “Eugene” quietly hums with romantic jealousy as our narrator pines for a longtime gal pal who’s in love with an unappreciative cad: “You put your hands in his shirt/You play him records I showed you/Read him Sylvia Plath, I thought that that was our thing/You know I like you like that/I hate that son of a bitch.” On the brilliantly color-coded “Bluish,” she chides a suffocating, clingy buddy whom she “never got the chance to miss.” Still, Sunbeams is the story of a life, and Parks accepts these seemingly “negative” feelings as simply another part of the ride.
Ultimately, this record’s mission statement may be best summed up in Paul Epworth co-produced closer “Portra 400.” Over a glitchy, cinematic keyboard loop, Parks likens an unhealthy relationship to “making rainbows out of something painful.” That’s the essence of Parks’ gorgeous, wonderful work: making the best of a difficult situation via radical kindness and self-love. On Sunbeams, she pulls it off with panache. And for her efforts, she’s created one of the loveliest, most affirming albums of the year—an auspicious start to an already masterful career.