Collapsed In Sunbeams (Transgressive/PIAS)
There’s an elegance, a kind of relaxed gentility, to Arlo Parks’ songs that is both highly appealing and dangerously easy to like.
Leaning into poetry (in fact the album begins with her reciting a passage) and easing back into a murmuring percussive groove, Parks requires no effort to enjoy. Her singing is languid, the rhythms only occasionally break into a trot, and the sounds circle rather than push/lead you.
The most obvious reference point is neo-soul: both spiritually and musically as the emphasis is on empathy and uplift, and the methods fade hip hop and trip hop into the cruise and caress of early ‘70s soul. But a stronger connection or comparison than the more muscular timbre of the best of those singers, such as Erykah Badu or Jill Scott (or even fellow new-Brit-making “American music”, Yola) might be to someone like Atlanta, Georgia’s Faye Webster.
Like the American, this young Londoner is more delicate of voice, lightly stepping rather than dancing across these melodies, which feeds into the feeling that even though they both draw from personal wells of hurt and insight, there’s more intimation than assertion of knowledge gained. That is, this isn’t the sound of a classic soul or country singer who has been through the relationship wars and wears the scars in her ruggedness, but one who is comfortable showing you the indentions of the bruises so far and wondering how that happened.
Parks likes to cast these stories mostly in character-based songs, peppering them with names and working in locational/topical/intimate details to flesh out the lives of protagonists with time still to get things right. Or at least better. This method allows her to proffer advice to those of us who might have walked this path before – or be walking it right now – and in theory might give her some distance.
But actually there’s a sense – true or not, it doesn’t matter – that the person giving the advice is the one also receiving it. That Parks is working her way through these situations in real time, gaining the experience. And there’s nothing wrong with that, especially when she writes with such grace and class.
Where inexperience is hindering her for the moment is in the relative lack of variety, you might even say adventure, in the music. That applies to tempos and tunes, even as I wouldn’t call any of the songs anything less than an attractive listen, and a standout such as Bluish has the sort of Velcro-grip on your ears/memory that suggests it is futile to argue.
Hurt, and even more so, For Violet, take in some low-key Massive Attack/Portishead possibility, along the way showing why someone like Billie Eilish is an Arlo Parks fan, yet each keeps itself clear when darkness is presaged. Portra 400 pulls out from the curb and lets you nestle into the leather seat for a satisfying cruise, but I was itching for a bit more grunt in the engine, and Caroline has a golden shimmy in its surface that can deter too close a look.
By the time a coolly funky track such as Just Go arrives in the second half of the album its impact is muted, firstly by the incremental nature of changes in the seven tracks before it and then the way it hints at something almost jazz/soul-like but sways away from it.
Nonetheless, every track mentioned so far, flaws or otherwise, when heard on its own would not disgrace a second or third album by a score of more experienced artists. That suggests Parks has enough already to make the prospects of a second or third album a fairly sure bet.