Earlier this month, Street featured Arlo Parks' debut album as one of our most anticipated new releases of 2021. Slated to open for Paramore artist Hayley Williams before COVID–19 restrictions canceled the tour, Parks had garnered buzz for the handful of singles she released over the last few years as she worked on her first LP. Showcasing poignant lyricism and dreamy vocals in tracks like “Cola,” Parks’ singles inflated expectations for her first full–length project, Collapsed in Sunbeams—and she’s somehow surpassed them.
The titular opening track “Collapsed in Sunbeams” sets the deeply personal tone that enshrouds her album with a soft monologue. Her poeticism announces itself prominently through the vulnerable lyrics found in every song, but manifests at its most unadulterated state among the lilts of the intimate spoken word track. It’s a fitting opener for the rest of the songs to follow, as Collapsed in Sunbeams feels like a conversation with Parks herself.
She speaks directly to the listeners as she ends the first track with a slightly ominous message of comfort: “You shouldn’t be afraid to cry in front of me / I promise.” Parks’ debut album showcases her raw ability to communicate emotions, a talent so potent that her pain becomes intertwined with ours as she sings to us. She explains this intention by saying, “Even though the stories in the album are about me, my life, and my world, I’m also embarking on this journey with listeners.”
The confessional nature of Parks' music brings us deeper into her universe until we live there alongside her. In "Caroline," we observe the dissolution of two strangers' relationship as Parks follows the reactions of a woman and her boyfriend after an explosive fight—creating a vivid reconstruction of their desperation and frustration. With lyrics like "strawberry cheeks flushed with defeated rage," Parks builds a narrative overflowing with details, a foundation to let our own imaginations run wild and immerse ourselves in the music.
Moments of vulnerability are sometimes veiled behind her soothing voice in highly personal tracks that explore heavy subjects like depression and homophobia. “Hope” encapsulates her friend Millie’s pain while simultaneously sporting a sunny, jazz–influenced beat. Parks beautifully yet tragically crafts a story of feeling so overwhelmed and broken that it becomes difficult to explain that depth of emotion, even to a loved one. Millie “started sweating bullets when her dad asked, ‘how d'you really feel?’” and wouldn’t “call her friends 'cause she’s ashamed of being locked into bed.”
Parks responds to Millie’s struggles with glimmers of hope and reassurance, reminding her that she’s not alone without any naivety. Collapsed in Sunbeams is unique in its ability to undercut heavy themes without sugar–coated placations. Parks understands the emotions she sings about and works through them alongside her listeners; as she puts it in “Portra 400,” she’s “making rainbows out of something painful.”
Parks leaps through a versatile and bittersweet track list, jumping from upbeat R&B pop in “Too Good” to toned–down soul in “For Violet.” She similarly bounds from subject to subject, touching upon themes familiar to adolescence. The range of moods that Parks includes in Collapsed in Sunbeams captures the tempestuous nature of growing up as she explores failed relationships, self–acceptance, and sexuality. She realizes the world is not as brilliant as she once believed it to be, that people are not always who she needs them to be. The album in itself is a coming–of–age story–one that is haunting and honest, yet cathartic.
The timing of Collapsed in Sunbeams seems appropriate given its shared themes with the COVID–19 pandemic of isolation, hurt, and uncomfortable growth. However, Parks’ success during a time of widespread suffering has yielded complex emotions for the young artist, with Parks admitting she’s “definitely had to work through feeling undeserving.” Still, there is comfort in the allure of Collapsed in Sunbeams and the tone of Parks’ music, especially as it uplifts without seeming dismissive or contrived. Parks' debut shines as a quiet moment of beauty, born from the pandemic’s uncertainty, to remind us there are brighter days to come. As she sings "I know you can't let go / of anything at the moment / just know it won't hurt so / won't hurt so much forever," Parks certainly sounds like healing.
Collapsed in Sunbeams is not an album of joy in the traditional sense. If you seek a message of complete and unflinching comfort, if you look for her to tell you that life is always easy and wonderful, you will search for it forever. There is, however, a different kind of solace weaved throughout the tracks Parks has poured her soul into: You’ll get through it, and you’re not alone.