Review: Arlo Parks goes deep on gentle retro-soul album

Arlo Parks, “Collapsed in Sunbeams” (Transgressive)

The first full-length album by Arlo Parks delivers on the promise of the intriguing pieces that have led some to tag her already as the voice of a generation, riding a gentle R&B retro-soul groove that soars with cinematic imagery.

A 20-year-old child of West London, Parks counts an eclectic range of influences, from Nigerian Afrobeat artist Fela Kuti to Otis Redding, but a more tempting comparison is Sade, the British artist whose exotic looks, bass-driven melodies and smoky, accented vocals set her apart, mostly before Parks was born.

That’s good company, and Parks has the elegance to pull it off. But typecasting has its limits, and Parks finds her own way on “Collapsed in Sunbeams.” Her depth lies in lyrics that grapple fearlessly with complicated subjects, an artist’s gift for imagery and a poet’s eye for detail.

A song called “Caroline,” for example, is built around an argument overheard at a bus stop. “Eugene” explores unrequited love for a longtime friend with devastating, put-you-there precision.

“I hold the Taco Bell and you cried over Eugene,” she sings. “He was mean.”

On “Black Dog,” a meditation on depression, Parks invites you to share in the ache of trying to lift the spirits of someone who feels utterly out of reach. Is the dog mentioned an animal? Or depression itself? This is heavy material, for sure. And yet the song is a thing of beauty, rich with empathy.

Throughout the album, Parks sorts through complex emotions bravely, in plain view, against the background of an insistent, bass-driven melody.

Despite the heavy subject matter, the album is ultimately encouraging. In the first lines of the closing song “Portra 400,” she practically declares her mission as “making rainbows out of something painful.”

By this time, 12 songs in, she’s done that over and over again.

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