Album Review: Arlo Parks - Collapsed in Sunbeams
And it’s after a few listens—at least three, all the way through, before the true emotional weight of the album finally registers, and when it finally does, it’s all I can think about, even after the record has ended and it’s just spinning infinitely on the turntable, the needle coasting through the “dead wax” near the center label.
I had a suspicion about Collapsed in Sunbeams—the startling, meticulous, and literate debut full-length from rising UK singer and songwriter Arlo Parks. And that suspicion, regarding the emotional poignancy of the record, began creeping in during the fractured moments when I would spend a just a little bit of time with it—allowing in bits and pieces, coming in through my headphones on a walk home from work.
My suspicion proved to be true when I recognized Parks’—born Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho—ability to turn a phrase; and how she can take that phrase, use it to grab your attention, and then build it into something much larger than itself.
She does this right out of the gate on Collapsed—on the R&B/funk inspired first ‘proper’ track, “Hurt.” “Wouldn’t it be lovely to feel something for once?,” she asks in the song’s bridge, before heading into the song’s infectious refrain, structured around a meditative message of hope: “Just know that it won’t hurt so much forever.”
Marinho should be able to turn a phrase, shouldn’t she? Outside of her work as a songwriter, she refers to herself as a poet, and across Collapsed in Sunbeams, she pens lyrics that have a strong poetic element to them, but more importantly, are rooted in her ability to both tell a compelling story, and within that story, craft an evocative narrative that moves forward as the song unfolds.
Not even 21 years old at this point, Marinho began releasing music as Arlo Parks in 2018, and issued back to back EPs in 2019—Super Sad Generation and Sophie, the material from both later collected, resequenced, and reissued on vinyl. Of Nigerian descent, Marinho was born and raised in West London, and found a slow burning success in the U.K. early on through her first few singles, like “Cola,” “Super Sad Generation,” and “Romantic Garbage.”
She had secured the supporting slot on Hayley Williams’ Petals for Armor North American tour—canceled, of course, because of the pandemic—and it was through a video of Marinho playing piano and singing with Phoebe Bridgers, covering “Fake Plastic Trees” in an empty cathedral, that put her on my radar, and made Collapsed in Sunbeams a highly anticipated release for the new year—a time that can, at times, be a notorious drought for interesting, thought provoking new releases.
Musically, Collapsed in Sunbeams is not so much a culmination of what Marinho had been working on since her auspicious early singles and efforts, but there is quite a contrast between the production and instrumentation of, say, “Cola” or “Super Sad Generation,” and the batch of tunes she has crafted for her full length debut—the contrast comes through the opportunity to grow.
You can hear the humble beginnings of the sonic aesthetic Marinho has created now if you go back to her early work, and within those songs, you can hear the desire for things to be, perhaps, larger in scale or more robust in their production values. Across the album’s 11 songs, Marinho and her collaborator Gianluca Buccellati have really worked to tighten things up, creating a backdrop that is much sharper in its precision and absolutely intoxicating in the atmosphere it creates.
There is a soulful nature to much of Collapsed in Sunbeams—and musically, it is slightly reminiscent of the feeling of the self-titled release from Lianna La Havas, released last year—a space where jazz, a little bit of hip-hop, and R&B combine with the “vibe,” if you will, of indie rock, resulting something that is both introspective, but also never misses the mark when it comes to conjuring a deep groove.
Marinho and Buccellati find that groove, or that place where those different aesthetics are able to achieve a convergence right from the beginning with “Hurt,” a song that is structurally unrelenting in the way its chopped up drum kit sample and rumbling low end provide space for the vivid imagery of the song’s narrative, punctuated by a jazzy, kind of subtle, kind of delicate electric guitar strum during the powerful refrain.
The two are able to recreate a very similar sound, or feeling, as the record progresses on a handful of songs, including the masterful and infectiously written “Caroline”—where Marinho perhaps makes the most usage of her storytelling capabilities, describing in detail, a very public and explosive argument between a man and woman; then later, again, in the album’s second half on both “Green Eyes,” and “Eugene.”
One could make the case that a fatal flaw of Collapsed in Sunbeams is, overall, it never leaves its sonic comfort zone, and the similar feeling created throughout makes for a less dynamic record, or one that can sound ‘samey’ after a certain point in its run.
It isn’t necessarily a bad thing that it remains relatively in the same place, musically speaking—there are some subtle variations or tonal changes, but it becomes pretty apparent early on that the songs from Collapsed in Sunbeams that are among the most successfully executed are the tunes that stick to the aforementioned structure—crisp, precise percussion that sound almost too accurate to not be originating from a sample, funk-inspired, rolling bass lines, and gentle, glistening electric guitar string plucks.
The variation on the album comes in the form of the surprisingly sunny, danceable, post-disco swirling of “Just Go,” which, despite its subject matter, is at least the most ‘fun’ song on the record because of the way its arranged. But what is even more surprising is the shadow that is cast as Collapsed nears its conclusion—there is the skittering melancholy found in “Bluish,” the theatricality of the album’s closing moment, “Portra 400,” and the very ominous, woozy swaying and rattling bass of “For Violet.”
Collapsed in Sunbeams opens, as an intro of sorts, with Marinho reading the titular spoken-word piece, which serves as a bit of a thesis statement for the songs that will come in time—she asks us to “make peace with our own distortions,” and, as if she knows how heavy of an experience the record might be to take in, ends the poem with this: “You shouldn’t be afraid to cry in front of me. I promise.”
The poetry, or at the very least, the poetic nature to the way Marinho writes does not stop after the opening piece—within each song, there is a thoughtfulness to her carefully constructed observations. At times, you can tell that she is young, and has a very young ‘voice’ as a writer, but there are other times when the way she commands the language is ageless.
There is a palpable desperation that runs throughout the characters in Collapsed in Sunbeams—lost souls searching for something that is just barely out of their grasp. On “Hurt,” it’s someone named Charlie, struggling with sobriety and feeling completely overwhelmed by the world around him. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to feel something for once?,” Marinho asks in the bridge, before offering a small flicker of hope as the refrain cracks the song wide open: “I know you can’t let go of anything at the moment. Just know it won’t hurt so much forever.”
In “Caroline,” she serves as the narrator describing a couple reaching a total breaking point and erupting in a shouting match on a city street, and paints a hyper literate portrait of what unfolds with the way she chooses her words: “…Threw her necklace in his face—eyes so bright with disappointment. I saw something inside her break—everybody knows the feeling.” And, as she does on “Hurt,” the song takes off upon entering the refrain, and the instrumentation begins swirling around her as she describes the man screaming, “Caroline, I swear to god I tried."
And even when it isn’t a ‘character,’ per se, in the songs, and more of a version of herself serving as the protagonist, it is still a very raw, very emotional and unabashedly honest place that Marinho is writing from, making Collapsed in Sunbeams an album that is surprising in just how open it can be, like on “Green Eyes,” when she reflects on an early and tumultuous same-sex relationship. “Of course I know why we lasted two months—could not hold my hand in public,” she states near the song’s refrain. Then, in the second verse, “I wish your parents had been kinder to you. They made you hate what you were out of habit. Remember when they caught us makin’ out after school? Your dad said he felt like he lost you.”
She explores additional romantic difficulties in the later portion of the album on “Eugene,” which finds Marinho working through the confusion that comes in the blurry space between platonic and romantic love, as she spins a narrative focusing on the development of feelings she has for her straight, female friend, who in turn, has a shitty boyfriend named Eugene. Musically, it’s set against the strategy employed on “Hurt” and “Caroline,” but this time there is a dreamier quality to it, as Marinho works out her feelings—“I kind of fell half in love and you’re to blame,” she sings in the refrain, before digging even deeper in the second verse: “You know I like you like that; I hate that son of a bitch.”
The real emotional weight of Collapsed in Sunbeams really registered, and in a sense, caught up with me, during the song “Black Dog,” which is the most personally impactful moment on the record.
Slow burning and pensive, juxtaposed by folksy guitar strums and glimmering piano flourishes that punctuate after the completion of every other line in the lyrics, it is those lyrics that I eventually unpacked, and was absolutely floored by.
An ode to a close friend suffering through debilitating depression—that is what the titular ‘black dog’ is in reference to—Marinho weaves a terribly realistic, and unnerving depiction of what life with mental illness is like for both parties: for the person who cannot outrun the black dog, and for the person that has to watch the decline.
“Sometimes it seems like you won’t survive this,” she sings early on in the song. “And honestly it’s terrifying,” a line that is later altered in the second verse to, “I know that you are trying, but that’s what makes it terrifying.”
The line that lingers, or that Marinho ruminates on the most is, “It’s so cruel what your mind can do for no reason,” and I think that perhaps the reason “Black Dog” is the song that affected me the most, or at least served as the turning point to unlocking the real gravity of Collapsed in Sunbeams is that it is both harrowing and honest in the way it describes someone having a mental health crisis, but she is careful in how she describes her own role in trying to help as best she can, and the thing that is easy to lose sight of (or at least for me, it is) because depression is such an insular disease, is that it impacts more than just you—you aren’t bringing others around you “down,” but there are other people who care, and want to help, but are uncertain where to even begin, or even if you’ll let them in.
“You’re not alone like you think you are,” Marinho sings over and over again, until it becomes a mantra, on the song “Hope,” sequenced early in the album. It is that kind of positivity, or at least optimism—coupled with the conceit of the song “Hurt,” that can be a slight challenge, at first, to work your way through, but within time, these are the ideas that linger the most after Collapsed in Sunbeams is over.
For a full-length debut, arriving only a few years after she began releasing material, the album shows the Marinho’s growth and maturity, already, as a singer and songwriter, but it also is a collection of tunes that brims with the promise of potential and additional development the further into her career she gets. But more importantly than that, Collapsed in Sunbeams is painstakingly thoughtful in the subjects it tackles, and how they are addressed, with Marinho carefully walking the line between playing to her youthfulness, but not alienating older listeners with the overall universal themes that she is working through.
I hesitate to use the expression that Marinho is “wise beyond her years,” in the way that she writes, nor do I want to pander to her as being some kind of generational voice for people under, say, 30, but the very literate way her narratives and bright, fleeting flashes of hope cut through the dark, heavy content make Collapsed in Sunbeams an undeniably compelling album full of breathtaking statements.