March AOTM: Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams

Whilst most of us are waiting for 2021 to show a flicker of light, you could argue that music hasn’t let us down so far. After kicking of the year off with Bicep’s ‘Isles’ February has delivered another treat; ‘Collaped In Sunbeams’, the debuit Album from Arlo Parks. For transparency, I wasn’t too sure about this album or how to approach it. The cynic in me was slightly concerned about the hype. 

Much has already been written about the creation, but if you have missed the many articles here’s a top-line recap: Around a year ago Arlo Park embarked on writing her debut album as Covid hit. Instead of being whisked away to a glamorous recording studio in LA, New York or London Arlo and her writing partner hunkered down in a B&B in Hoxton and created much of this album as the world seemed to be falling apart. It seems that her focus could not be shaken and the results were fruitful.

As we all worked through 2020 we were treated with the first 5 tracks from the album; Eugine, Black Dog, Hurt, Green Eyes and Caroline.  Black Dog, a chillingly honest song about her friends depression landed on many (including our) Top Ten year end lists for tracks of the year. As David pointed out in our 2020 year end podcast, there was a lot of expectation and hype around her album. 

The album as a combined finished article is very approachable. From the spoken word intro into “Hurt’ Arlo quickly lets you into her world. Her honest lyrics are matched by her likeable vocals of the West London songstress. The pop sounding ‘Collapsed’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Caroline’ flow into each other and are pleasing on the ears whilst lyrically telling stories more in the vein of a poet than a pop star. She weaves stories into songs with ease, making you feel the album is closer to a conversation with a friend than a collection of songs. This is apparent as you move onto ‘Black Dog’, ‘Green Eyes’ and then ‘Just Go’ which feels like a summer jam on the outside and ever so familiar song about relationships to us all (at that age) when we think about our late teens and early 20’s. 

We often speak on this blog and our podcast about album pace. I’d argue this album has been mapped very well. Some reviews have questioned ‘Violet’, and have suggested it perhaps is one of the albums weaker songs. I think the opposite. The Portishead-esk track reminds us not to rest on our laurels and arguably is a nod to some of her less predictable influences such as Radiohead. After a quick break from the expected you’re quickly pulled into the well known ‘Eugene’. It reminds me of Lily Allen. Not just for the vocal presentation and similar West London accents but also ability to welcome you into the story that Arlo tells and Allen previously did on some of her work. This for me carries through to ‘Bluish’ and ‘Porta 400’. 

Like many debutant albums ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ oozes with vulnerability. It reminds me of so many conversations with friends at that time in my life. As a person in my 40’s I can relate to her as her songs remind me of so many things when I was a similar age to her. I think perhaps that’s the magic; her and the allowance into her world. 

It’s hard to read any article that doesn’t focus on the age of Arlo Parks which I struggle with. Many have arguably written their best work at this age; though perhaps this is the point. Is Arlo Parks going to be one of the greats? There is little doubt that poetic lyrics and welcoming vocals are ahead of many of her peers in a similar age group. 

The album is easy to listen to, and has been on constantly in our house. It flows nicely and doesn’t seem to offend any of our ears. I often catch my Hayley and the kids humming along. 

Any hype that this album has received is well earned in my opinion. Will she be one of the greats? I truly hope she can carry on the trajectory she has started on. But she has a lifetime of songs still to write and in the meantime this album has a fair bit of tread on it for me. There are many miles left in it before I’ll be needing the next model. 

10 thoughts on “March AOTM: Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams

  1. Nice write up Nolan. You’ve captured many of my responses to this album but hopefully I can build on them in some form of a meaningful way.

    I missed a lot of the hype about Arlo. I had heard of her. I think I’d probably heard a few tracks on radio but in a ‘passive’ way. David choosing ‘Black Dog’ for his track of the year was my first ‘active’ introduction to her. I was a little surprised at his choice, not that I thought that it was a poor song but just a little surprised that David had connected with it in the way he did. ‘Shock. David’s song of the year isn’t Disco or sung in French’ (love you David :)). So, that’s my history with Ms. Parks.

    So I have one major gripe with the album. Let’s get it out the way. ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ the track. Why? I am being proper grumpy? I know it’s only a minute long but it feels so self conscious and a little trite? Sorry Arlo. But i think that’s the albums only true mistake. If it was nestled in the tracks somewhere maybe, but as your opening statement. I think it’s a mistake.

    So, now that’s off my chest. The rest of the album is great. It’s lovely. It’s warm. Personal. Calming and cooly executed. It may lack a few exciting peaks but there are zero troughs. It’s a well constructed, consistent and mature collection of well crafted songs. Given that it is sounds so consistent (perhaps to a fault on early listens?) there are a lot of disparate influences that rack up over the tracks. My personal favourite is Hope. Partly cause I close my eyes and can see my 6 year old dancing and lip syncing to it. But there are loads of tracks that I really enjoy. And Brother David … Black Dog has grown on me loads and makes much more sense to me as part of this whole. Sometimes it’s not the song, it’s the context that can stop you enjoying something? This is a great example. Nolan, I agree ‘For Violet’ is one my stand out tracks too. Who’s been dissing it?

    It’s so accessible. It’s so easy to listen to it. This maybe it’s biggest downfall. It’s the least divisive album I’ve heard in ages. This means that the cool kids will pretend they don’t like it (and maybe the aged musos might do too?). There’s lots to really like. It maybe that there is less to absolutely, violently love but I will be listening to this a lot this year.

    1. Your intro is basically so much my intro I may just copy and paste. Heh.

      And I know we talk about context but….. she. is. twenty. years. old. It’s staggering really.

      My words are not far off either, but I think I feel almost identically about this as you do Joey, which is happening quite regularly. Where’s this in the venn diagram?

      I’ll just say what you have in twice as many sentences!

  2. I wanted to wait a bit of time before responding on this, partly because I’m aware of how little time we get before we have our first reaction to albums of the month if they’re just out, and also because I wanted to try and get to live with the album a bit, let it get into my existence and do more than just talk about first impressions. Even so, I’m sure I’ll have changed again before we talk.

    A few things to note here, as context. Because, while we should always be straight about what the music we review does to us, context is always important here. It certainly weighed on McCartney III and also Bicep. So let’s get two things out of the way: the anticipation and hype on Arlo Parks’ shoulders after being crowned BBC’s ‘Sound of 2020’, and having to write an album to justify that hype, and the fact that she is 20. Because we’re not talking about the 5th album of an established artist, or the frontman of a band, we’re talking about someone who is only at the start of their career. In that context, Collapsed In Sunbeams is a pretty incredible work. And what’s the counter to that?

    Well, I know that I share a love of pop and female vocalists and songwriters with David, and while there’s a real neo-soul flavour to Collapsed in Sunbeams, to me, it’s a modern pop record with an artist that trades in realism and narrative lyrics. And musically, it’s such a warming, comforting blanket of melodies, soft vocals, guitar licks and gentle percussion. I don’t doubt that some will dismiss this musical environment as ‘coffee table’ music or unchallenging, straightforward, breezy writing, but really that’s only half the story, because where it stands out and elevates from that first impression is the lyrics. Saddling Parks with the cumbersome ‘voice of a generation’ tag seems reductive, but my word, her lyrics and their willingness to confront a range of soul-bearing and exposing subjects is where Arlo Parks stands out.

    Let’s think about some of what’s on the album, intertwined with such brilliant hooks and gossamer-light delivery: desolation, alcoholism (Hurt), depression (Black Dog), prejudice and rejection (Green Eyes), anxiety (Hope), domestic violence (For Violet), unrequited love for a straight girl (Eugene), damaging friendships (Bluish), relationships fracturing (Caroline). Wrapped up in this softly-spoken, uncomplicated music are some tough subjects, all dealt with unsparingly. And they just don’t really emerge on first listen. Much like Black Dog, which was my first real introduction after she’d flown under the radar for me in 2020, I thought ‘this is a lovely record’ then listened and just thought ‘wow’. It was overwhelming to listen to for a while – a bit close to the bone for me too – and made me realise there was something more to Arlo Parks than just lovely, accessible melodies. The narrative style – that first or third person story-telling – isn’t anything new but it’s the power of the words and the innocuous nature of the delivery that makes the album a different proposition the more you get into it. It’s not an album to listen to in the background, but in headphones, to get the true impact. I’ve really started to love some of these songs already, particularly Black Dog, Hope, Hurt, Too Good (which my daughter is obsessed with, she’s 3) and Caroline.

    So what’s the counterpoint? That it’s ‘fluffy’ music, beige neo-soul that is typically millennial and throwaway. That would be hugely unfair. Its reception has been almost universally well received, and it would be hard heart – and a lazy reviewer – that took that line. There’s probably something in the fact that music that sounds like this may well be dismissed as something less than it is. Perhaps that’s going to be true for some people, and perhaps the longer-term challenge is how will it stay? Can it endure? At the moment I’d say that it should and it will. Because do to this at 20, after only a handful of EPs, and then a tour halted in lockdown that accelerated the writing of an album that would arrive with huge expectations, is something really to be celebrated, whatever your view of the music, this feels like a rare talent, whose poetry and spoken word background has lent itself so well this to this style of song writing.

    I also love how she wears her influences on her sleeve. Everything from Radiohead to Patti Smith, Stereolab and Nick Drake to Sufjan Stephens, Air and Frank Ocean. There’s a nice lack of artifice here, too, despite the cleverness of the contrast between lyrics and music, which is refreshing. And someone who has the confidence to make music their way despite a likely dismissal of its style and substance. I’m with Joey on this, that it’s such an accessible experience, it doesn’t feel like it’s going to engender extremes of reaction, but it’s easy for us to say as middle-aged adults that have a pretty good idea of who we are. I think the real power here is to teenagers and young adults who are struggling with so many of the subjects she sings about, that will find something of solace, connection and solidarity with Parks’ music and words. That’s the real power. I can imagine a timid, unsure 18-year-old version of me falling in love with this album. And that’s a powerful thing to have. I hope this is just the start of a long career because there’s so much promise here.

  3. So I find myself in the slightly weird position of having been a big champion of Arlo’s, and of choosing Black Dog as my song of the year…. and yet I might be about to writ the most lukewarm review of anyone’s!

    The more time I’ve spent with the album, the more problems I’ve found with it. That’s not to say that I’m not enjoying it, I really am, I’ve listened to it bloody loads. But that old issue of the burden of expectation has left me often feeling a little underwhelmed by the end of each spin.

    I agree with all of the positives, so probably no need to rehash them. She writes a great hook, she lets her own personality really shine through the songs, and there is something really warm and charming about her and her work.

    But to pick up on Guy’s ‘fluffy’ point. I’ve been grappling with precisely that. I’m not sure I’m going to get hung up on whether I’m the target audience or not. I’m a music lover and she’s making music (though, interestingly, I thought my 16 year old daughter would love her and pointed the album in her direction and she said she thought it was ‘a bit meh’). There is a politeness in the arrangements, and I’m really trying to work out if that’s coming from the artist herself. I’m certainly not going to suggest she doesn’t have total control over her own work, but she is a young artist with a huge rep on her shoulders, and I’d like to know a lot more about how the songs were arranged and who was involved. Because I’m wondering if they feel a bit ‘managed’.

    Having said that, Transgressive are a pretty cool indie label, so I do hope they’ve given her the space she needed. But there is something about the finished result that feels just a touch too like dinner party music. I’m listening to the song ‘Hope’ right now as I write this, and that gentle drumming, careful guitar and piano is very much in that mould.

    That brings me onto the other problem – thematic and lyrical repetition. Parks’s emotions feel very heartfelt and there is a beautiful sense that she cares deeply about the people around her – we see it in Black Dog, in Hope, in Caroline, in Eugene. The problem is that this theme because quite exhausting. It is, in a sense, the same thing over and over, expressed in different ways. It’s even led me to feel like Black Dog feels less exceptional when it’s surrounded by songs very like it, saying much the same thing. That may well be a first album problem, an artist who needs to mature and find more complexity in what she’s doing. But for me, there aren’t enough surprises on this album. It slips down nicely, and…that’s it.

    Let’s be clear, she is an ENORMOUS talent and I’m pretty convinced she’s going to go on to make much more major work. I’m thinking here particularly of Kiwanuka, who kind of suffered from the same thing – a kind of reserved politeness in his first album. Look at the astonishing strides he’s made with every subsequent record. I really hope this is the beginning of a long career for Arlo Parks. And that this is just the starting point. It’s a nice one, but I’m not sure it’s much more than that.

    1. I fully agree with your points David. I definitely think there’s an element of her lyrics and personality being really to the fore but I’m not sure how much musical input there is. She’s a poet and spoken word artist first and foremost. Looking at discogs she appears to have co-written a lot of the tracks with a producer called Gianluca Buccellati and done a couple with Paul Epworth.

      I definitely plan on digging into what has come from where for the pod as I think you’re 100% on the kiwanuka point and how musically it’ll be much more interesting how that develops. Unless you’re someone that writes everything yourself, there’s going to be an element of steering here. I’m just curious to know what the split was.

      1. For sure. She’s talked about not intending to write the album right when she did but lockdown caused her to forge ahead with it and there was a very productive period of a number of weeks. Some days resulted in a couple of completed songs.

        I also wonder if with all the expectations it may have been a relief just to get it completed.

  4. Pingback: Podcast: Re-up – THIS IS NOT HAPPENING

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