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After two years of singles and EPs, British singer and poet Arlo Parks released her debut album “Collapsed in Sunbeams” on Jan. 29. Swingy and thoughtful, the album synthesizes many of Parks’ strengths — easy melodies that stick in your head, tight lyrics that unravel with each listen. While few of the album’s new tracks quite compare to Parks’ biggest singles like “Black Dog” or “Eugene,” “Collapsed in Sunbeams” weaves these earlier releases together with relaxed, refreshing, and occasionally brilliant additions.
The first song on “Collapsed in Sunbeams,” “Hurt” is, like much of the album’s first half, a pre-released single. According to an interview with Parks, “Hurt” is ostensibly about triumph, though its moody mantra, “just know it won’t hurt so / won’t hurt so much forever,” feels almost hollow as it echoes over a hummed melody and subtle drums. When introduced by the album’s titular poem, however, the intentionality becomes clearer; Parks’ goal, it seems, is to show that hurt and hope cannot be unentangled. “Collapsed in sunbeams, stretched out open to beauty however brief or violent,” she reads, before introducing a series of images of two people “ablaze with joy,” “elbows touching,” “hurt and terribly quiet.” The integration of that duality — the pain of love, particularly love as a Black, queer woman, with hope and fiery intimacy — is what elevates Parks’ often pain-ridden songs into something violently alive.
Parks’ ability to capture both the heights and depths of love with such painstaking precision is a testament to her poetry and song-writing skills. She has a particular knack for gutting openers, like the line “I’d lick the grief right off your lips” from the eerie “Black Dog.” Though “Black Dog” has already received critical acclaim since its release in May, it bears repeating that what NME called “the year’s most devastating song” doesn’t lose its bitter beauty over time. And thankfully, Parks proves she can still kill an opener on several brand-new songs on the album, notably the late addition “Bluish.” A whispery, claustrophobic song about abuse, she introduces it with the accusation: “[you] smothered me with fake blood and ginger.” Parks thrives on dissonance and particularity, juxtaposing tiny details that both clash and coalesce in vivid, just-right detail.
The sonic backdrop to Parks’ stunning lyrics doesn’t always live up to the words themselves, though there are moments of true creativity that peak out from the looping drums and laid-back vocals. While songs like “Hope” and “Caroline” border on repetitive, fresh entries like “Just Go” break things up with a dash of upbeat, jazzy bitterness. “Bluish” is a standout here, too, where Parks’ faraway vocals and syncopated electronic pulses make the perfect backdrop to the chilling chorus “You held me so hard I went bluish.”
Woven throughout Parks’ thesis on the interconnectedness of love’s joys and triumphs, “Collapsed in Sunbeams” also contains an implicit message about queer love as well. Artists and art critics often debate what “positive” representation looks like when it comes to relationships between queer and queer BIPOC people especially; there’s little representation in the first place, and even fewer depictions of love that doesn’t end in tragedy. To compensate for that deficiency, though, there’s the opposite danger of “forcing” relationships to work out, in art and in life, or holding queer couples to an impossible standard of optimism. In navigating the complexities of writing about queer love, Parks seems to straddle this dichotomy particularly well; she doesn’t gloss over the challenges of dealing with homophobic parents or unrequited love, but she holds out hope to her listeners, too. Parks has the kind of relationship with her identity that’s infectious, mature, nonchalant, and freeing. She’s not sweating over whether the world approves of her love; rather, she’s created songs that move beyond a surface-level “it’s ok to be queer” and get into all the real, complex, salty messiness of dating as a queer person. “Green Eyes” is a perfect example of this: It’s a song with empathy for a partner who still feels shame when she “hold[s] [her] hand in public,” but also a declaration that Parks knows she deserves better. That self-possessed nonchalance is also part of the charm of “Eugene”; Parks certainly doesn't sing about shame or guilt when she talks about falling for a close friend. Rather, she gives herself permission to hope, to be angry, and to throw some well-deserved shade at her friend's boyfriend.
All in all, “Collapsed in Sunbeams” is not a perfect album. It’s sometimes repetitive, occasionally a bit cliché, and not every intro quite lives up to the one in “Black Dog.” (The well-intentioned opening like in album closer “Portra 400” “making rainbows out of something painful,” for example, feels moralistic and almost cheesy.) But every once in a while, a combination of Parks' smooth, driving rhythms and spare, just-right adjectives strikes gold.
— Arts Chair Joy C. Ashford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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