“I’m always making rainbows out of something painful,” Arlo Parks sings, on the closing track of what is arguably 2021’s most keenly anticipated debut album.
It’s a trick the 20-year-old poet pulls repeatedly throughout Collapsed in Sunbeams – 45 minutes of mellow folk-soul grooves – noting the “strawberry cheeks” of frustrated rage, the imagined “amethyst kiss” of unrequited love and the “black dog” of depression. It’s not surprising that Parks’ music has chimed with people struggling with lockdown. She names all our fears with arresting clarity, then reminds us of the opportunities to become “ablaze with joy, feeding a cat or slicing artichoke hearts…”
Born Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho in west London to Nigerian and French-Chadian parents, Parks grew up as “a black kid who [couldn’t] dance for s***, [listened] to emo music and [had] a crush on a girl in my Spanish class”. She began writing to escape into a fantasy life, quickly establishing a style that combines emotional directness with a rich sensory palate. Inspired by artists as diverse as Elliott Smith, Jill Scott, Frank Ocean and Portishead, she was only 17 when she began sending demos to the BBC. Success came quickly. Her trip-hoppy 2018 debut single “Cola”, which featured heavily in Michaela Coel’s BBC drama I May Destroy You, was written with producer Luca Buccellati and to date has been streamed over 15 million times on Spotify.
Released last May, lead album single “Black Dog” has been hailed as a “pandemic anthem”. Its easy melody is based on a few simply-strummed acoustic guitar chords: long, light and brittle as dragonfly wings. Over this, Parks desperately tries to lift a friend from severe depression: “I'd lick the grief right off your lips,” she sings, clear and sweet. “Let's go to the corner store and buy some fruit/ I would do anything to get you out your room.” There’s a beautiful clarity to both her words and her diction. Even though her topic is sad, you can hear the pleasure she gets from words as she gives the “t” of fruit a crisp tap of the teeth.
Parks’s kind-but-firm determination to hold difficult feelings up to the daylight is given a positive, forward momentum by the rattle of live drums. This percussive energy drives the whole record, keeping the easy-soul loops from mulching down into hipster coffee shop background music. They cymbal-tap their frustration through “Eugene”, about bisexual Park’s jealousy towards a straight friend’s male love interest. They prowl moodily, pocket-deep, through “For Violet”, then skip breezily through “Too Good” and clatter a redemptive lifeforce into “Hurt”, as Parks tackles the cold comfort of addiction: “Charlie melts into his mattress/ Watching Twin Peaks on his ones/ Then his fingers find a bottle/ When he starts to miss his mum/ Wouldn't it be lovely to feel somethin' for once?”
Parks sourced these lyrics from the diaries she wrote during her early teens, but the album itself was recorded in an AirBnB flat. These are intimate thoughts, carefully enunciated in a public space. On “Hope”, she sounds like a busker regaling passersby as she utters: “You’re not alone.” The pedestrian atmosphere is accentuated by an electric guitar, which sounds as though it’s echoing through the tunnels of the Underground.
The charm – and perhaps a flaw – of Collapsed in Sunbeams is how easy it is to drift in and out of it. At times, Parks’s prism colours and ideas can leap out, scatter and startle you. At others, the myriad references to fruit and fashion alongside mental health catchphrases can feel like flipping through a magazine. But then, that’s how the light works. And I’m so glad Parks is here to brighten this dark year.