Arlo Parks is the kind of artist who almost could have been created in a test tube for a certain type of music fan. A 20-year-old singer-songwriter raised in London to Nigerian/Chadian-French parents (her real name is Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho). Songs with personal yet universal lyrics culled from journals, steeped in R&B and alt-rock but anchored in singer-songwriter tradition. Cosigns from admiring contemporaries like Billie Eilish, Phoebe Bridgers (with whom Parks played a show in London last fall) and Clairo (who sings on the album), and even Michelle Obama (who put one of her songs on a playlist last summer). This album’s title is taken from a Zadie Smith short story, and has two songs produced by Adele collaborator Paul Epworth.
All of the above is based on a pair of startlingly mature 2019 EPs that saw this young songwriter arriving nearly fully formed — yet “Collapsed in Sunbeams” marks her true arrival. Far more fleshed-out than the EPs (none of the songs from which are repeated here), it seems all but inevitable that Parks will be one of the breakthrough artists of 2021.
So what makes her and this album so special? In a word, intimacy. She’s said in many interviews that the album’s lyrics are based on her adolescent-era journals, and the lyrics have the feel of a diary or a perceptive email from a friend, but with sharp, novelistic observations and funny references. One telling example comes from “Black Dog,” a song about her (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to help a friend out of depression, which mixes concern with humor and even a Cure reference: “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.”
The intimacy carries over to her direct, unaffected singing, reminiscent of Lily Allen, with a clear British accent. While her voice is carefully produced and multitracked in many places, it often feels like she’s simply talking, and the songs occasionally feature spoken-word passages. The album opens rather deceptively with the spoken poem title track, which leads one to expect a folk singer — until the beatbox of “Hurt” kicks in and the funk-inflected style makes it clear that something else entirely is in store.
None of the above would work without the album’s brilliantly restrained production and arrangements, nearly all by her longtime collaborator Luca Buccellati: The music flawlessly frames her voice and lyrics and never intrudes; long passages will feature just beats, bass and gentle guitar or atmospheric keyboards, which isn’t to say they’re quiet. Many of the songs feature driving beats — “Green Eyes” has a bassline very similar to a recent song by fellow British rising stars Sault.
“Collapsed in Sunbeams” isn’t perfect — Parks’ relatively one-dimensional voice does get a bit repetitive toward the end of this dozen-song album — but her talent and reach are undeniable. And strange as it may feel to be getting reassuring advice from a 20-year-old at such a horrifying time in history, there’s also no denying the warmth of a song like “Hope,” which sets a sad scene — “Won’t call her friends ’cause she’s ashamed of being locked into bed/ Can’t feel her legs and feeling like a liar at best” — before bringing the uplift on a simple chorus: “You’re not alonе, like you think you are/ We all havе scars, I know it’s hard/ You’re not alone.”