By Ethan Cook
Last Friday Arlo Parks dropped her debut record, Collapsed in Sunbeams. From the moment the first notes hit my ears I knew that I was listening to something special, and before long I was texting out links to the album to all my friends.
The album falls somewhere between the R&B, soul and indie-pop genres, and prominently features Parks’ silky voice and spare poetic lyrics over lush production. Parks’ ability to take the pure, raw beauty of poetry and tempers it with the comforting and familiar sounds of indie pop music. This is something rare and impressive, and a talent she puts on full display in her debut album. There’s a lot to unpack and discover in this intersection of poetry and pop, and I intend to fully dive into this area over the course of this album review.
One incredible feature of Parks’ music that I can’t get enough of is how she relates to her listeners and accessibility in her lyrics and sonic aesthetic. This vulnerable familiarness is achieved through the tag team of Parks’ writing and producer Gianluca Buccellati’s use of pop and R&B sounds. Collapsed in Sunbeams taps into a nostalgia for the late 90’s / early 2000’s that is especially strong with Gen Z. Movies like Highschool Musical and She’s the Man embody the nostalgic love for this era, and Parks does the same thing with the beats and backing tracks in her songs.
The intro to “Eugene” sounds like it could be straight from a Jesse McCartney song, and the track behind “Caroline” would be right at home in a 90’s R&B ballad. On top of it all are the beautifully structured, poetic lyrics about a regular college kid making their way through life. The lyrics aren’t about supermodels or extravagant parties; they’re about meeting a friend at Taco Bell, witnessing a fight on the street, a relationship going long distance when one person moves to college. These songs are telling intimate, knowable stories that are as at home on UW-Madison’s campus as they are in the UK with Parks. The combination of nostalgic production and grounded lyrics create an album that is simultaneously beautifully new and comfortingly nostalgic.
The eighth track on the album, “Just Go,” details an ex-partner showing up at the main character’s house in the middle of the night. It’s clearly a breakup song, but with less remorse and Parks’ poetic touch. The lyrics drop hints and clues to the unfolding story, but allows the listener to fill in the blanks. The upbeat backing track features funk-esque guitar lines and grooving bass lines that feel fresh, but based on a strong foundation of tradition. Verging on minimalism, Parks manages to squeeze a staggering amount of emotion into so few words. On the second verse she sings: “Can’t forget her necklace in the backseat of your car / Can’t forget the hickeys, you know bitter blossoms fast / Won’t deny I miss your choice of words, but I can’t go back.” Parks simultaneously delivers layers of emotion and context for how the singer feels. Following up each verse, the chorus acts as a cleansing refrain, repeating “Why don’t you just go?” The mastery of word choice in these tracks is profound, and the emotional weight contained with each lyric speaks to a lived experience communicated through music.
The fusion of poetic lyricism, timeless R&B beats, and understated vocals creates a compelling work of art that feels both familiar and brand new. A poet at heart, Parks’ choice of language and natural storytelling ability makes for lyrics that are grounded in reality. Rather than songs detailing the exploits of pop stars and millionaires that sound alien to a broke college student, we get lyrics that feel intimate and relatable; songs about dealing with depression, about love found and lost, about everyday struggles and triumphs. It isn’t often that I listen to a record and think, “This was made by someone like me.” In recent memory Phoebe Bridgers and Soccer Mommy have pulled it off, and now Arlo Parks joins their ranks. I love this record for everything that it is, and it sits prominently at the top of my “Best of 2021” list, a position that will be hard to overtake.
1. Arlo Parks on KEXP
2. Phoebe Bridgers and Arlo Parks cover Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees