ALBUM IN A SENTENCE: Arlo Park’s debut album uses storytelling to create a collage of young London mounted upon a rock solid neo-soul soundtrack.
When I was twenty years old, part of the floppy-fringed Britpop generation, my song writing hero was Jarvis Cocker of Pulp. At twenty years old, with the release of her debut album Collapsed In Sunbeams, critical and commercial success has come a lot more quickly for Arlo Parks than Cocker. Parks has produced a high quality set of songs that should win awards and indelibly lodge in the broad receptacle of British collective memory. It will be no surprise if songs like ‘Hurt’ and ‘Caroline’ play regularly in 25 years’ time on local radio, defining 2021 as the mystery year, just as ‘Common People’ and ‘Disco 2000’ have become shorthand for 1995.
One comparison between Parks and Cocker, two artists not perhaps usually placed together, is that they both commit to using storytelling as the primary vehicle for their lyrical skill. They articulate a keen, personal awareness of the pain and loneliness that an outsider can carry. Cocker shines a spotlight the ‘mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits’, while Parks sees the struggle of her friend who says “I’ve been feeling like something inside me wants to scream” Both writers use similar techniques to express similar alienations, but arrive at very different places.
The difference between these two writers, perhaps indicative of something that has altered between generations, is that Jarvis Cocker uses storytelling to detach himself from his subject, whereas Arlo Parks gets involved.
Listening again to Different Class in the light of Collapsed In Sunbeams, I’m reminded that although Britpop was at least 50% about cigarettes and alcohol, it was also was about the perpetuation of a beatnik/punk-like fight that outsiders, dressing, thinking, dancing differently, picked with ‘John… down a fun pub drinking lots of lager.’ (Blur, ‘Bank Holiday’) Jarvis Cocker documenting the Britain he saw from a detached observer’s perspective, spoke about the opportunity for outsiders to triumph, to get revenge for their alienation, or at least retreat to safety. At the time, I know I believed him when he sang ‘I spy a chance / to change the world,’ and ‘the future’s owned by you and me.’
A generation on, the righteous furies of ‘Common People’ still demonstrates the strengths of Cocker’s lyrical approach; a willingness to confront complacency, and a sharp eye for the cutting detail. Different Class still sounds different class. But next to Collapsed In Sunbeams, what becomes clear is that there is slim consolation for any outsiders without the power to beat ingrained class structures or to be revenged. I don’t believe Arlo Parks would sing a lyric to a friend that said ‘I’ll show you how you’re doing it wrong.’ With an emphasis on competition, personal responsibility to better yourself, and a faith that social barriers can be surmounted, Different Class shows we were all capitalists in the 1990s. We believed the system could change because we believed in the system.
What I admire about Arlo Parks is the way that she is able to climb inside her stories as a participant and see the best in the people she writes about. Her world is full of endemic trouble; families that don’t give enough support, people struggling with depression and substance abuse. However, Parks always aims to stand next to her subjects in solidarity and demonstrate understanding. Even if on a song like ‘Green Eyes’ where someone gets left behind, Parks assures that ‘I could never blame you darlin’.
There are no songs about storming the barricades on Collapsed In Sunbeams because often the enemies her characters face are inside themselves. It is not youthful naivety that draws her lyrics towards universality such as ‘Just know it won’t hurt so / Won’t hurt so much forever,’ or ‘It’s so cruel what your mind can do for no reason.’ It’s more that Parks appears prepared to get closer to the mess, to the weight of the Robert Smith eyeliner, to ask what her characters need to hear and are able to take. If Collapsed In Sunbeams has a manifesto, perhaps it’s best summed up by the line, ‘You shouldn’t be afraid to cry in front of me. I promise.’ That is a beautiful sentiment, sincerely put, and something I’d never expect to hear from a Jarvis Cocker story.
25 years on from Different Class, I can still instinctively trace the lines we drew in the Battle of the Mis-shapes. I still find it easier to remind myself of the ways that I don’t belong rather than sit in the truth that, in many environments to many different people, I do. That belonging has grown out of trying to learn to be more like Arlo Parks on Collapsed In Sunbeams, involved and engaged rather than detached and ironic. It has grown out of a maturing sense that if the system will never work, then kindness with the suffering is the better answer.