Every so often, an artist comes along that seems to be able to tap into the thoughts and feelings of an entire generation through their music. Since her debut EP was released in 2019, London artist Arlo Parks has been able to do just that – and yet ‘voice of a generation’ isn’t a title that she particularly likes.
“I am of that generation, but I’m not speaking for that generation”, she told The Independent in January, “There are so many individuals. We’re not going to all have the same way of being or personalities or priorities.”
Of course, this is true – every member of a generation leads an entirely different existence full of wildly varied experiences. However, the themes found within Parks’ debut album, Collapsed In Sunbeams, are almost universally relatable.
Sexuality, break-ups, unrequited love, mental illness and friendship are all explored throughout the album, with beautifully written lyrics complimented perfectly by Parks’ silky smooth vocals. It’s difficult to pin down the genre of the album – there are notes of jazz, alternative, indie, soul and spoken word. In many ways, it feels as though categorising the album under any particular genre goes against exactly what Parks is trying to do, with the 20-year-old having cited everyone from Joni Mitchell to Sylvia Plath as influences for her debut.
The title itself, Collapsed In Sunbeams (which also lends its name to the first track of the album, a spoken word poem set to a dreamy acoustic and synth instrumental), was inspired by literature – specifically, a line from Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, which describes how a dachshund lay ‘collapsed in a sunbeam’. It’s clear that literature and poetry were both huge catalysts for Arlo Parks’ ever-developing sound.
As far as lyrical inspiration goes, much of Collapsed In Sunbeams seems to have come straight from the diaries that Parks kept during her teenage years, with tracks such as Eugene giving the listener a surprisingly honest look at Parks at her most vulnerable. The lyrics of Eugene read as a love letter to a former friend that Parks had secretly developed feelings for, as well as a cathartic outlet for her dislike of her friend’s boyfriend at the time. Lines such as ‘I kind of fell half in love and you’re to blame’ are sure to leave you feeling as though you’re secretly eavesdropping on a private conversation that likely never came to fruition.
Parks is surprisingly candid throughout the album, with this project being inarguably her most honest work to date. The vulnerability she displays throughout the album was, understandably, a source of nervousness leading up to its release, as she has explained herself.
“There is obviously a sense of fear, putting out something where I’m exposing a soft, vulnerable point in myself, but when I realised that it had the capacity to help people, that outweighed the fear.”
Being able to give her fans something to relate to is a driving force behind much of what Parks does within her music, having wanted to comfort others through music for far longer than she has been producing it. She has recently mentioned discovering a diary she had kept at thirteen where she had written ‘I want to make music because I want to help people’ – it’s a goal that has driven her ever since.
“When you approach the world with such vulnerability and openness, people return that energy,” she says, “It’s draining, but it fills me with a purpose. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Eugene isn’t the only track that appears to take clear and direct inspiration from the experiences of Parks’ earlier youth, with Green Eyes hitting a similar note, among others. Not every track on the album is quite so autobiographical, however. Two of the supporting singles from Collapsed In Sunbeams found their inspiration in the experiences of others.
The beautiful Black Dog describes Parks’ feelings as she watched a friend deal with a debilitating case of depression that left her friend confined to her bedroom. The track will surely strike an emotional chord with anyone who has watched those that they love face similar issues. Lines such as ‘let’s go to the corner store and buy some fruit, I would do anything to get you out of your room’ and ‘at least I know you’re trying, but that’s what makes it terrifying’ describe the feeling perfectly – the feeling of doing all that you can to help whilst simultaneously worrying that their efforts may never be enough.
Mental illness is, of course, a common yet devastating problem among millions of young people, and one which Black Dog handles with sensitivity and care.
Caroline, meanwhile, takes its inspiration from ‘a fight between an artsy couple’ that Parks witnessed whilst waiting for a bus. Few of us take the time to look so introspectively at the problems of strangers, often caught up with so many of our own, yet Parks illustrates the moment in a way that leaves the listener feeling as if they were there themselves – perhaps we just see ourselves in these characters. As Parks herself says on the track, ‘I saw something inside her break, everybody knows the feeling’.
Caroline isn’t the only person we’re directly introduced to during the album. There’s a surprising amount of characterisation throughout Collapsed In Sunbeams, with several songs introducing a protagonist to the listener within the first line of the track.
Characters named Charlie and Millie are the subjects of Hurt and Hope respectively – whether they truly exist or are simply a device used for Arlo Parks to speak directly to the audience, we don’t know. Either way, Parks’ lyrics invite you into the lives of these characters with such frank honesty that you certainly feel that you know them by the end.
Overall, every aspect of Collapsed In Sunbeams – the lyrics, the production and Parks’ incredible vocals – comes together perfectly to create a listening experience that lingers with you long after the last notes of the closing track, Portra 400, have played. In an ever-changing musical landscape, many artists, sadly, seem to fade away as quickly as they arrived on the scene. It’s been clear from the very start, however, that Arlo Parks is an artist with a bright career ahead of her – and Collapsed In Sunbeams is the strongest hint towards this yet.