Arlo Parks, Village Underground review: The Mercury Prize winner’s future is bright

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Arlo Parks at Village Underground  (Martyna Wisniewska )
Arlo Parks at Village Underground (Martyna Wisniewska )

If there was any remaining doubt that 2021 belongs to Arlo Parks, it was well and truly squashed on Thursday night when the 21-year-old singer/poet beat Celeste and Wolf Alice to the 30th annual Mercury Prize with her debut album, Collapsed In Sunbeams.

At last night’s homecoming show - her first live performance since the ceremony - Parks didn’t even mention the win until just before the encore, coyly alluding to her victory with the words, “A few nights ago I won a pretty big prize.” It didn’t feel like false modesty either; rather, the actions of an artist still slightly incredulous that their music is connecting with audiences to such a degree. Watching a performance as open-hearted as this, it isn’t difficult to see why Parks inspires such a groundswell of goodwill from fans and critics alike.

Opening the set with a pre-prepared monologue delivered from the wings, she told the audience, “I want you to feel safe,” and thanked them for their support, concluding, “Honestly, I don’t think I’d be here without you.” It could easily have been cloying, but emotional authenticity has always felt a natural fit for Parks, manifesting itself in breathtakingly candid songwriting tackling so-called taboo subjects including depression and body image.

Swaying on top of the monitors, backed by a nine-piece band including a trumpeter, saxophonist and two backing vocalists, Parks brought her intimate bedroom poetry to life beautifully. Lightly bluesy on record, Hurt possessed a newly psychedelic edge live, while the slow-burning Black Dog built to a crescendo as heavy as the song’s subject matter. Parks’ silvery tones were a delight throughout, whether gliding across the breezy soul of Too Good or caressing a plaintive “Hey!” during the chorus of Eugene.

The prevailing message of the show was one of hope, a fact underscored by the stage decor as much as Parks’ between-song chat or choice of set closer (Hope). For perhaps the first time ever, Village Underground had been transformed into “a palace of sunflowers” - complete with a canopy of bright blooms suspended from the ceiling - fostering an atmosphere that felt instantly uplifting.

Not that Parks needed to rely on gimmicks to raise spirits: with her warmth, humility and willingness to be vulnerable, she possesses an unmatched ability to bring light to the very darkest of moments. Judging by the adoration she inspired in last night’s audience, an even brighter future beckons. Watch out 2022, Parks has designs on you too.

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