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Arlo Parks Offers Solace Without Illusions on Her Debut Album

Arlo Parks wrote her own job description into the closing song on “Collapsed in Sunbeams,” her debut album. “Making rainbows out of something painful,” she sings in “Portra 400.” The song is named after a Kodak color-negative film: a way to preserve images. Parks’s mission as a songwriter is to merge careful observation with clearheaded uplift, trying to provide solace without illusions. “I know you can’t let go of anything at the moment,” she counsels in “Hurt,” then adds, “Just know it won’t hurt so much forever.”

Parks, 20, was born Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho in Paris. Her father is Nigerian; her mother is Chadian-French. She grew up in London, and in her teens she turned from poetry to writing songs and constructing beats. In 2018 she released her debut single, a coolheaded post-breakup song named “Cola,” which reappeared on “Super Sad Generation,” the first of two EPs she released in 2019. The title song portrayed teenagers with low expectations: still unformed but already jaded, taking drugs and “trying to keep our friends from death” while “killing time and losing our paychecks.”

Parks moved back in with her parents during Britain’s Covid-19 lockdown and returned to writing music in her old bedroom, sporadically releasing some of the songs from “Collapsed in Sunbeams,” including “Hurt,” during 2020. Her main collaborator on the new album, Gianluca Buccellati, produced much of the music in his home studio. (Clairo, herself a bedroom-pop expert, joined them on one song, and Parks wrote two others with Paul Epworth, one of Adele’s collaborators.)

As on Parks’s EPs, the music on her album is restrained but far from austere. She coos the melodies over low-slung hip-hop beats and guitars that can tangle like indie-rock or syncopate like funk; she makes no secret of her fondness for Radiohead along with R&B. Meanwhile, her vocals arrive in layers of unison and harmony and from all directions in the mix, conjuring both solidarity and spaciousness. Her music inhabits a private sphere, but not an isolated one.

Parks’s songs often place her as a friend or bystander, watching characters in uneasy situations, sometimes titled with her characters’ names. In “Caroline,” set to guitar picking that hints at Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” she watches a couple having a bitter fight in public, with the man finally shouting, “Caroline, I swear to God I tried!” In “For Violet,” over ominous bass tones and crackly vinyl static, she’s helpless to shield her neighbor whose “dad got angry”; all she can do is play soothing music for her over the phone and remind her, “Wait — when college starts again you’ll manage.” In “Black Dog” — Winston Churchill’s phrase for his depression — she struggles to rescue a friend struggling with mental illness: “It’s so cruel what your mind can do for no reason,” she sings. And in “Eugene,” the singer seethes with jealousy when a girlfriend she grew up with — and dreams of kissing — turns to a boyfriend instead.

Romance is iffy at best in Parks’ songs. “Too Good,” written with Epworth, depicts a potential relationship going sour over a suave funk groove: “The air was fragrant and thick with our silence,” Park lilts. In “Bluish,” she contends with a partner so clingy she feels strangled. And in “Just Go,” an ex returns “begging me to change my mind,” but the singer stays skeptical and unforgiving. “I knew you hadn’t changed that much,” she sings, with a shrug in her voice.

“Hope” is as close as the album gets to an anthem, and it’s not close at all. As it cycles through a few descending piano chords over a hip-hop backbeat, Parks sings about someone named Mary who’s joyless, isolated and deeply depressed. Midway through, in a spoken-word passage, she confesses to feeling the same, to “wearing suffering like a silk garment.” The best she can offer is empathy. “You’re not alone like you think you are,” she sings. “We all have scars/I know it’s hard.” Somehow, there’s comfort in that.

Arlo Parks
“Collapsed in Sunbeams”

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