A stunning debut emerged from the darkness of lockdown to win the London newcomer chart success and a well-deserved Mercury prize
As the beginning of 2021 marked almost a full year of the pandemic, lockdowns and social distancing, many of us were experiencing some sort of impact on our mental health. So when Arlo Parks released her debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, in January, she found herself chiming with universal concerns. Addressing issues that had been triggered or exacerbated by Covid stresses and lives stuck inside four walls, be they unrequited desire, sexuality issues, poor body image, prejudice, betrayal or depression, Parks emerged as an empathic, comforting voice.
Articulating listeners’ anxieties has always been central to pop but few have managed it in such an authentic, genuine and timely way. Almost half a century after David Bowie threw a lifeline to a confused generation with Rock’n’Roll Suicide’s “Oh no love, you’re not alone”, Parks offered a concerned hand to the Covid-19 cohort with her song Hope: “We all have scars / I know it’s hard / You’re not alone like you think you are.”
Throughout Collapsed in Sunbeams, Park’s conversational delivery – the natural staccato of a native Londoner – is crucial. Often, she’s not singing so much as talking intimately, as a close friend or confidante might. Over the course of a dozen songs, Parks dips into her own teenage diaries (when she was a “Black kid who couldn’t dance for shit”) to turn both confessor and counsellor. In Hurt, she simultaneously describes addiction – via the character of Charlie – while alluding to a more universal numbness brought on by trauma: “Wouldn’t it be lovely to feel somethin’ for once?”
Black Dog, like Nick Drake’s similarly titled song Black Eyed Dog, is a stunning portrait of depression through the experience of a young goth or emo (as Parks herself once was): “I’d lick the grief right off your lips / You do your eyes like Robert Smith / Sometimes it seems like you won’t survive this / And honestly it’s terrifying” she sings, urging that she would “do anything to get you out your room”. Super Sad Generation (which saw her lumbered with the presumably unwelcome tag “voice of a generation”) is an effective snapshot of casual youthful degradation: “Start doin’ ketamine on weekends / Gettin’ wasted at the station / And tryna keep our friends from death.”
In other hands – perhaps those of one of the emo bands she used to love – such words could have been screamed or yelled while the music itself was fraught with tension. However, Parks never resorts to obvious tropes. What makes Collapsed in Sunbeams so effective is that the music is the striking inverse of her themes – light, airy, her voice vulnerable and childlike. The songs themselves are delicately but cleverly constructed, with ear-worm choruses and generous hooks; soulful, folky tones, gentle R&B and jazzy drumming; a shimmering sea of balm-like sound beneath which lurk those lyrical depth charges.
Her language mingles the plainspoken and the poetic. “The turquoise in my ring matches the deep blue cramp of everything,” this fan of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf sings on the opening, title track. Just as vivid are the “strawberry cheeks” of rage, the elusive “amethyst kiss” of unrequited love, or Green Eyes’ stark experience of homophobia: “Felt their eyes judgin’ our love and beggin’ for blood.”
Collapsed in Sunbeams reached No 3 in the charts, and earned Parks a Brit award and the prestigious Mercury prize. Her delightful debut epitomises 2021. It captures all the bleakness and confusion of the Covid-19 era but her songs crystallise the hope, positivity, togetherness and humanity that will see us through it: “Making rainbows out of something painful”, as she sings on Portra 400.