Arlo Park's debut is beautifully easy-going, an exploration of mental health and youthful lust. Here's why the indie-pop record justifies the hype.
Back in October, our writer Matt Bull named 20-year-old Arlo Parks amongst his six favourite black artists in the world of indie, describing her music as "beautiful, articulate (and) minimalist". The pick did look a little odd considering her lack of musical output at that time, but his choice has definitely been vindicated, her debut Collapsed in Sunbeams is an absolutely sublime album from start to finish.
A few years ago, Arlo Parks (real name Anais Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho) was signed after being discovered by BBC Music Introducing, soon signing to the independent label Transgressive (home to Foals and Loyle Carner) in 2018. Less than two years later she landed a spot on the coveted BBC Sound of 2020 list and it was at that point her name began to spread like wildfire.
My first experience of her music was on 6Music and later on Radio 1 where her single 'Black Dog' was named as the stations single of the week in July 2020. Being featured on both stations is a hard feat indeed, proof of her mainstream appeal and acclaim amongst those of the 'muso' persuasion. Let's be honest, aside from a small handful of artists these days, the two rarely match up these days, so when they do you have to sit up and take notice.
Soon, the hype spread even further. Over summer 2020, the West London singer featured on the front of the NME and then won the AIM Independent Music Award for the One to Watch in 2020. A great year, right? Well, there was also the challenge of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in the cancellation of a host of shows and delayed the release of her debut album. With added time can come added pressure to deliver, but no sweat, deliver she does!
What's the verdict then?
She's absolutely smashed it. For someone so young, the music sounds so accomplished. A large part of that is down to the production of Gianluca Bucccelatti, resulting in a unique, textured fusion of indie and r&b. The trip-hop beats provide so much character to the tracks also, helping it effortlessly run smoothly from start to finish.
After a poem to introduce the record, the album kicks off with 'Hurt', a soulful, upbeat track inspired by Parks listening to "plenty of Motown and The Supremes" during a phase of writers' block. She sings about the enduring pain and suffering of a character called Charlie, providing an uplifting message to those affected in these difficult times.
The chorus aims to inspire: "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." And that it does. She's letting the listener know that pain through depression is temporary and, by the end, the character Charlie comes to the realisation that he's not "so overwhelmed by all his flaws".
From the off with this album, you're made aware of how much of a warm artist she is. And over the 40 minutes, you just get that nice, soothing feeling listening to her.
Overcoming anxiety and depression is a constant theme running through this brilliant record. Third track 'Hope', which was made Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac's 'Hottest Record in the World' on 27 January, does exactly as the title suggests. The song itself is about a shame-filled friend called Millie who - like so many during this lockdown - has been stuck inside feeling depressed and isolated. The advice, not just to the character but to the listener too, is that "you're not alone like you think you are/ we all have scars, I know it's hard".
'Black Dog' was my entry point to Arlo Parks and it was honestly such a refreshing listen on first listen. It immediately struck a chord with me one sleepy morning where getting out of bed was more a struggle than usual. Musically it's pretty simple, plucked guitar chords providing a unique backdrop to a tale of isolation; 'black dog' a term popularised by Winston Churchill for depression itself.
In a recent interview with Apple Music, Parks said that she wanted to get a similar vibe to songs from Radiohead's 2007 album In Rainbows like 'Nude' and 'House of Cards', as well as songs from Sufjan Steven's Carrie & Lowell. And the result is a real impactful, stripped-down, yet textured sound which has you hanging on every word. The song was written about her best friend (who does her "eyes like Robert Smith"), Parks desperately trying to understand what she's going through. Through 'Black Dog', she's terrified that her friend will turn to suicide and is looking for excuses to help her.
It's here where Arlo Park's conversational songwriting is at it's best. The desperation to help comes through the chorus, "let's go to the corner store and buy some fruit, I would do anything to get you out your room". Parks later declares in the outro that "it's so cruel what your mind can do for no reason". Mental health can be a difficult subject to discuss through song, but she comes across with empathy and a desire to understand people who are going through hard times. It's such a fantastic song and one of two main highlights on the record.
The other main highlight, of course, is 'Caroline', which has been a mainstay on Radio 1 of late. The song begins with Parks describing an argument on London's Oxford Street while she waits for a bus. She watches on as an "artsy couple" openly reveal their frustrations to one another, much to the intrigue of the writer who is fascinated by the public unravelling of this relationship. The song's explosive hook is amongst the best on the album and will have you singing along on first listen ("Caroline, I swear to God I tried/ I swear to God I tried").
'Eugene' is lighter and more upbeat in sound, a nostalgic track which puts you in the shoes of the writer as she describes falling in love with a close friend, together with the unbearable misery and jealousy this is causing. It follows the slower, darker and heavier 'For Violet', a track which explores the challenges of growing up, Parks revealing in the chorus that "it feels like nothing's changing/ and I can't do this, can't do this".
Collapsed in Sunbeams is an indie-pop record with an atmospheric edge and dashes of r&b and soul. It comes together for a near-perfect debut and one that remains engaging throughout. Listening to a lot of albums these days, you inevitably find yourself losing focus, but the delightful hooks and upbeat, looped drums and conversational delivery holds your attention for the most part.
With a buzz created over the past year, the temptation might've been to go overboard after a lengthy delay to the release. Instead, at 12 tracks and just under 40 minutes, you leave the album feeling satisfied, excited for the next listen. Truthfully, only a small number of debuts are able to do that.
One of the tricks here is the placement of her best two tracks, 'Caroline' and 'Black Dog', at almost exactly the halfway point of the record. And despite familiar themes of nostalgia, mental health and coming of age tales, there's just enough difference track to track to not wear you down (believe me, this can be easily done!).
With her effortless conversationalist style, lyrics exploring youthful lust, mental health and depression, supported by trip-hop, r&b tinged, indie-pop, Collapsed in Sunbeams is a near-perfect debut from an already accomplished new artist.
Arlo Parks is our guide to help us through hard times. I absolutely loved Collapsed in Sunbeams.
Rating - 9/10