ORJust three years ago, Arlo Parks was performing in a clothing store with a group of friends from school for a handful of people, including, thankfully, a headhunter. Now just 20 years old, he has an acclaimed top three album, Collapsed in Sunbeams; a Brit Award for Innovative Artist; fans like Billie Eilish and Elton John; and this great reserve at the Manchester International Festival. Playing in a vast, socially detached space and a largely masked audience is not how all children imagine stardom. “This is my first show in 19 months and the first time we played these songs live,” begins the star, dressed in a baggy jacket and combat pants. “I’m very nervous. Have fun … but stay seated!”
In fact, it works. The cavernous space and hi-fi sound provide the perfect environment for your voice to breathe, and what a joy it is – vulnerable and childish, yet strong and determined.
The west London-born singer describes herself as an ’empath’ and candidly addresses universal concerns, from craving for mental health to Covid-19, as well as more personal dilemmas like falling in love with a heterosexual friend. His singing often has a conversational style, like he’s trusting you directly, that feels genuine and natural. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to feel something for once?” sings in Hurt. In Sophie she admits: “I’m just a girl, I choke and slip / I hate that we are all sick.”
A crack sextet, some of whom have been with her since she was 17, left the jazzy, funky, trip-hoppy vehicle for Parks’s airy tones to skyrocket. Sometimes it’s like Lily Allen or Corinne Bailey Rae fronting Massive Attack. At another point, Parks, a fan of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, reads the poem that opens her album, full of emotional images such as “the turquoise in my ring matches the deep blue cramp of everything.”
For the last six songs, string musicians from the Royal Northern College of Music arrive to make the music more lush while the content darkens. Black Dog, released during the pandemic, addresses someone: “I was licking the pain from your lips, / you fix your eyes like Robert Smith, / sometimes it seems like you won’t survive this.” Super Sad Generation, one of the songs that annoyed her with the nasty label of “voice of a generation”, could be a list of trendy tribulations if it weren’t so real and vivid: “Start taking ketamine on weekends, get drunk. at the station and trying to prevent our friends from dying. “
At the end, he talks about the joy of seeing people together and how difficult these times have been for all of us. She deliberately walks away with a song titled Hope, and lines like “We all have scars, / I know it’s hard, / You’re not alone as you think” resonate like everyone else.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism