British singer-songwriter Arlo Parks released her debut studio album just this last January, and the 20-year-old artist has already come upon a robust, blossoming fame. Collapsed in Sunbeams emits a certain light, a gentle hope of sorts, at the end of the dark tunnel — or deep hole, or whatever the heck else one may want to call it — that these last 13 months have been.
A delicate mix of indie-pop and R&B, Parks’ music swims about experiences she has shared with other people or has observed from the outside. And she achieves this in a way that has been perceived as distinctively Gen Z; Gen Z is broadly understood as those born in the years ranging from mid-90s to early 2010s. With the new millennium came a surge in not only technology, but global connectedness too, making for a generation described as hypercognitive, worldly, innovative, and individualistic — not to mention social media-immersed.
Parks has been nominated three times for the 2021 Brit Awards, among them Best New Artist and Album of the Year. This isn’t terribly surprising. considering that her first full record peaked at number three on the UK Albums Chart. Parks has stepped onto the music scene and it’s exciting to see where she’ll go from here.
Evidently one to have grown up in a digital age, Parks situates herself as part of a larger context. “Cola,” for instance, her debut single released in 2018, is a vulnerable expression of the bitterness and heartache flowing from the discovery that her partner cheated. “I checked your phone and no surprises” the first verse rings. An intersection has increasingly emerged between social relations and technology, and its darker contours are all but too familiar to this generation.
Deeply in touch with both herself and those around her — be they lovers, strangers, or something in between — Parks possesses a unique, striking intuition that is present all throughout her work. “Green Eyes,” for one, is a melancholic reflection on a relationship cut short by external pressures. This track in particular touches on Parks’ queer identity, in that it expresses the pain in having been with someone who struggled with their sexuality and could not fully own the connection that they shared.
Through a similar fashion of meta-storytelling, one of her most popular tracks, “Caroline,” is Parks’ reading between the lines of a fight between a couple near her as she waits for a bus. She may not have had any context, but a song and story rich with detail breezes from her removed perspective nonetheless.
Whimsically scrappy and artistically seamless, Collapsed in Sunbeams is a montage of music, poetry, and literature –– each piece an intentional part of Parks’ larger work that is in tune with herself and so much more. The title itself, for instance, is inspired from a line in Zadie Smith’s novel “On Beauty.” Similarly, a number of works and authors influence Parks’ songwriting, in ways both subtle and explicit –– such as Sylvia Plath, as referenced in the lyrics of hit song “Eugene,” and 19th century Lord George Byron, the inspiration for her single “George.”
Poetry, however, is fundamental to Parks’ identity as an artist in that it is a part of her individual process. The record begins with a 54-second spoken word, her gentle voice musing potent lyricism. “Collapsed in sunbeams, stretched out open to beauty however brief or violent,” Parks says, lending only a taste of the pacifying sentiment to come. It is no surprise at all to learn that her songwriting is often born out of initially working through her emotions via poetry.
Intrinsic also to Parks’ art is a nod to the universality of human emotion. Parks recently appeared on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” where she explained that her music “is meant to be experienced in (a) collective way” and to foster “healing in public.” Mental health is perhaps most notably centered in “Black Dog,” a song named after the term Prime Minister Winston Churchill used for depression.
“Let’s go to the corner store, and buy some fruit/ I would do anything to get you out your room” the chorus soothes, listeners melting into the soft melody peppered with upbeat notes. This single was released during the lockdown and is a classic embodiment of Parks’ second-person lyric style and penchant for cushioning darker topics with angelic words.
Her music is comforting wisdom from someone well beyond their years. There’s something refreshing and invigorating about a young soul such as Parks, who has their whole life and career before them, painting empathy and optimism to endure the time until normalcy. And by that point, live music will once again exist and Parks can get atop her stage to spark healing in real time with everyone together.