When a young artist showcases a great deal of talent early on, it can be impressive, exhilarating, and sometimes even frustrating. Not because they reach farther than what their skill ceiling can support, but because it leads one to wonder how they cultivated such sophisticated songwriting at such an early age. There’s a certain soul that powers such works as Collapsed in Sunbeams—the debut album by 20-year-old artist Arlo Parks—which can’t be dismissed, and compels deeper observation critically to understand the trajectory of the artist and the album.
Collapsed opens with a spoken word stretch of verse, befitting lines with complex and nuanced structures such as “learning to trust our bodies/ making peace with our distortions.” Yet it serves as a primer for the intimacy of the album, and the sheer closeness of the lines is immediately felt. The first proper track is “Hurt,” a wonderfully complex introduction to Parks’ musical sphere, but one that benefits from a sense of measured optimism on display, albeit with brilliant lyrics that paint a real portrait of pain: “Charlie melts into his mattress/Watching Twin Peaks on his ones/Then his fingers find the bottle/When he starts to miss his mum/ Wouldn’t it be lovely, to feel something for once?/Yeah wouldn’t it be lovely, to feel worth something whole?”
What Parks builds around those lyrics is often just as impressive. The composition of “Too Good” is a nearly inescapable groove, a bass that snaps and oscillates across the track, sliding to the side of acoustic ripples that embolden it. Parks’ vocals feel so new here, like they do throughout the album, raw in a way that nearly belies the surprising maturity of the lyrics. Then again, it’s simply a reminder that this is still an early stage in what has the potential to be a longer and more fruitful career.
“Hope” starts with a throng of nu-jazz, quickly layered with Parks’ voice, an astounding marriage between the two. Measured and balanced in the weight of the track’s emotional atmopshere, while simultaneously being a pop earworm, it contains a pop chorus that marks one of the finest moments here. “Caroline” likewise stands apart with its lush, prog-inspired arrangements, with some surprisingly nuanced guitar work. Along with a rich harmony, this represents Parks at her absolute best, transcending the suggested aesthetic limitations that appear throughout the rest of the album.
Returning to the intimate space in which the album began, “Black Dog” creates a unique texture musically but wears its soul on its sleeve with lyrics such as “I’d lick the grief right off your lips…sometimes it seems like you won’t survive this.” It grapples intimately with depression in an open fashion, alongside a quieted and staggered series of synth notes, a tactful minimalism that allows Parks’ occasional reach toward falsetto to absolutely glow.
This structured minimalism doesn’t last long. “Just Go” stacks layers of funk alongside a melancholy piano powered by a shuddering bass that transcends its subtle pop affectations, pushing toward something that feels oddly harmonious and analogue, even antiquated in the best way possible. This constant experimentation continues on “For Violet,” a slower and more intense track that allows static and reverb to play between channels, guided by a crawling cadence of percussion, eventually anointed with a high-pitched synth.
During “Eugene” and “Bluish” Collapsed hits its stride, refined and delicate, brimming with a Euro-pop sensibility, while remaining spacious enough for Parks’ distinctive vocals to emerge as an instrument of its own. This early on, immediate comparisons to other artists will be frequent, but Parks demonstrates during the middle portion of the album a maturity and sensibility that will carry her well into her career.
Employing a combination of soft and open lyricism with hushed folk- and soul-inspired vocalizations, met by signatures of free-verse poetry, Collapsed in Sunbeams stands defiant in how perfectly youthful and exuberant it can be. Its optimism measured with processing grief is perhaps contradictory, depending on the listener’s mood, or a casual betrayal of the observation at the world’s tireless march towards doom. But sometimes, such efforts are necessary to counteract the easy spiral we embark on when counting our limitations and obstacles instead of what we can do to overcome them. This is the groundwork for greatness to come.