Arts and Entertainment

Making Rainbows Out of Something Painful

A profile of singer-songwriter Arlo Parks and a review of her first studio album “Collapsed in Sunbeams”

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By Cindy Yang

For Arlo Parks, music is about finding hope in dismal places—both the ups and downs that come with love, pain, and depression. “I think conversations are opening…the fact that it's becoming easier to speak one's truth is really comforting and positive to me,” she discussed with NPR. At just 20, the London-based poet and singer has already garnered critical acclaim, with her music receiving shout-outs from Billie Eilish, Michelle Obama, and Phoebe Bridgers, among many others.

Her willingness to confront topics such as mental health and addiction is apparent in her previous singles like “Black Dog” (2020), where she tries to support a friend with depression. “Let’s go to the corner store and buy some fruit,” she pleads. “I would do anything to get you out your room.” In “Hurt” (2020), she recounts the tale of a mysterious “Charlie,” who “drank ’til his eyes burned…with pain built into his body…” and reassures him that “it won’t hurt so much forever.” Sometimes, adolescence can be difficult, and in “Super Sad Generation” (2019), Parks speaks for all of us when she admits that “we’re just a super sad generation, killing time and losing our paychecks.” No matter the issue, Parks feels like a friend, bringing you fruit, support, and unconditional love.

This pattern is followed in her most recent album, “Collapsed in Sunbeams,” which was released on January 29. With songs titled “Hope” and “Too Good,” listeners are sure to feel Parks’s familiar yet somehow universal message of optimism. “Collapsed in Sunbeams” is a journal—a portrait of adulthood, romance, and isolation, told through spoken words and soft, neo-soul beats.

What makes Parks’s album stand out is her intimacy. Though she sings with the perspective of an outsider on tracks like “Caroline,” which is about a couple she saw while waiting for the bus, it still feels like we are caught up in their story. Parks touches on these strangers’ relationship and how, suddenly, what seems beautiful can easily sour. “Caroline is an exercise in people-watching and seeing situations unfold without context,” Parks said of the despairing tune. Songs like “Caroline” highlight Parks’s talent in storytelling, recounting personal anecdotes with passion and emotion.

Parks got her start as a poet and a writer; as a teen, she would create fantasy worlds because she struggled with shyness and identity in her real one. “I’m a Black kid who can't dance for [EXPLETIVE], listens to emo music, and currently has a crush on some girl in my Spanish class,” she said of her teen years. Now “Collapsed in Sunbeams” is Parks’s metamorphosis, an evolution from her reserved adolescence to a bold new sense of self within her songwriting and storytelling.

Though “Collapsed” is flawless in its lyricism and depth, it can occasionally feel monotonous. The beats are light and cheery, with floaty keyboards and methodic drum cracks. Still, each phrase Parks delivers hints at a possibility of something less sweet, something to match the topic of her singing. Each track eventually finds itself somewhat glacial, continuing this album’s sentiment of observing from afar. Despite the sweetness of Parks’s sounds, the lyrics are ultimately what make this album meaningful. Through catchy, confident references to pop culture and verses of acceptance, “Collapsed in Sunbeams” is a warm blanket of friendship and welcome.

Throughout the album, Parks also covers songs by popular artists, like “Ivy” by Frank Ocean, “Moon Song” by Phoebe Bridgers, “Bags” by Clairo, and “Baby Blue” by King Krule. Her take on these favorites, what she calls a “lo-fi lounge,” feels like she’s singing in her room, a private performance for millions of listeners, but also only for you. And Parks does this so well. Everything she posts about on Instagram, tweets, or says in an interview feels so personalized it’s almost like she knows each and every fan. During a time like this, intimacy feels strange, but somehow it's easy to be swept up in her bubble.

Like Parks sings in “Portra 400,” she is constantly “making rainbows out of something painful.” Whether it's through her omniscient storytelling or the way she approaches taboo topics with grace and prose, Arlo Parks is certainly writing for the present, and creating a world where we celebrate every moment of life and feel comfortable approaching pain.