It’s hard to know how to feel about the state of Arlo Parks’ career. The obvious response is to be hugely impressed: here she is, at 20 years old, surfing a wave of critical acclaim, the release of her debut album heralded by vast billboards around London and what’s effectively her own TV special, courtesy of Amazon. Not bad for someone who was hopefully uploading their demos to the BBC’s Introducing site a couple of years ago. Then again, it’s a hard heart that doesn’t also feel a twinge of pity. The poor woman has been stuck with the Voice of a Generation tag, a surefire way of lumbering an artist with expectations anyone would struggle live up to: “a term that can create problems for anybody,” as Bob Dylan – who should know – once put it.
Still, you can see how it’s ended up appended to Parks’ name with such regularity and despite her protestations. She calls herself an empath – someone deeply attuned to other people’s feelings – and has been lauded for writing about “sexual identity, queer desire, mental health, body image”, according to one profile. You read a lot of fans “speaking their pain” in the comments section below her YouTube videos. The problem is that it makes Parks sound painfully worthy, part of that recent eat-your-greens strain of pop that comes with a sense of earnest moral obligation attached: music that’s sold to you on the basis of what it stands for rather than how it sounds. And that would be a desperately unfair interpretation of Collapsed in Sunbeams, an album that needs no special pleading.
Lyrics are clearly Parks’ thing – so much so that she opens the album with a burst of spoken-word poetry. But as you listen, you realise she could be singing almost anything, and Collapsed in Sunbeams would still work. She has a lovely voice: airy, natural and unshowy, with a London-accented conversational tone that occasionally recalls a less flippant Lily Allen. Her writing with collaborator Gianluca Buccellati has an unhurried melodic fluency – Green Eyes and Eugene drift charmingly along – and they’ve hit on a sound that works: commercial without submitting to current pop cliches or blandness. There are crisp, looped breakbeats and subtle shadings of vintage soul, as when an organ rises gently into the mix on Too Good. Reverb-heavy electric guitar ranges from funk riffs to icy, Radiohead-esque figures to the heaving shoegazey textures of Caroline and crackly samples that betray her love of Portishead’s Dummy. Stripped of its vocals, the bass-heavy For Violet might have slotted neatly on to Mo’ Wax’s mid-90s trip-hop compilation Headz.
The lyrics, meanwhile, tackle distinctly 21st-century anxieties. An lot of pop in recent years has attempted to deal with body image, mental-health issues or problems with sexual identity; so much so that you don’t have to be a terrible cynic to make out the sound of boxes being ticked. That isn’t the case here: Parks writes with a diaristic tone that suggests lived experience rather than a self-conscious desire to tackle the burning issues of the day. She has a great turn of phrase – “wearing suffering like a spot of bling”; “the air was fragrant and heavy with our silence”, “shards of glass live in this feeling” – and a desire to be, as she puts it, “both universal and hyper-specific”.
If you were minded to nitpick, you might suggest that she’s rather better at the latter than the former, that the broad brushstrokes lean a little on self-help platitudes of the “you gotta trust how you feel inside” variety. Her real skill lies in observing small, telling details: the depressed friend whose overload of makeup leaves her looking “like Robert Smith”; the “artsy couple” she watches arguing in the street on Caroline, “strawberry cheeks flushed with defeated rage”; or in the sudden switch to a blunt, colloquial tone. “You know when college starts again you’ll manage,” she counsels a friend struggling to live at home on For Violet. “I wish your parents had been kinder to you,” she tells an ex whose struggle with her sexuality scuppers their relationship.
But then, why would you be minded to nitpick with a debut this good? It appears to announce the arrival of a major new talent, though you never know: the path of an artist stuck with the Voice of a Generation tag is fraught with pitfalls. You can succumb to self-importance, you can discover your skills lay in describing a specific moment in time and struggle to move on. But that’s the future, something that currently feels more imponderable than ever. Right now, Collapsed in Sunbeams feels like a warm breeze in the depths of a miserable winter.
This week Alexis listened to
Lael Neale: Blue Vein
There’s nothing to the first single from Lael Neal’s forthcoming album Acquainted with Night: tape hiss, electric guitar, her voice and a cheap old synth. It’s all the song needs.