Although long revered as a collaborator and arranger (his place in popular music mythology secured by his work with Brian Wilson on the fabled Smile alone), it is arguable that Van Dyke Parks’ stock as a solo artist has never been higher than it is right now. Last year’s reissue campaign from Bella Union brought a range of his quirky, mischievous music to a new audience and Songs Cycled is being marketed as something rare and treasurable – the first new Van Dyke Parks solo album in 24 years.
That the title refers back to Song Cycle, Parks’ 1968 debut and masterpiece, suggests that the PR spin masks a slightly more prosaic reality. The four tracks presented here as new originals have in fact been released before, as part of Parks’ series of 7” vinyl releases for Banastan early in 2012, although this new release makes them available beyond committed fans and collectors.
Of the remaining selections, some are re-recordings of old material, others are interpretations of traditional material (a Sacred Harp hymn, a take on Saint-Saens, a calypso number). Parks has clearly chosen this material carefully (many of them elucidate Parks’ ecological and political concerns), and it all fits together with a madcap coherence that is entirely characteristic of Parks’ singular vision. Songs Cycled somehow works both as a retrospective and a fresh statement in his own wonderful words: “It hangs together well, as we must, lest we all hang separately.”).
Parks is right to emphasise the album’s paradoxical sense of unity and purpose. The baggage of context does little, if anything, to diminish the quality of the material here. Songs Cycled is a wonderfully engaging, fluent and stimulating listen from start to finish. Of the re-recordings, Hold Back Time does little to expand or improve (or even much alter) the version included on the underrated Orange Crate Art, but the new take on The All Golden is a more modest, piano and accordian-dominated arrangement, ending up curiously touching for all its twists and turns.
Parks has never been a musician to knowingly under-egg a pudding and, in the manner of his classic solo albums, he throws all manner of Americana at the wall on Songs Cycled. There are hints of Tin Pan Alley songcraft, Stephen Sondheim, George Gershwin, and the enduring influence of his collaborations with Brian Wilson still pervades. He also borrows liberally from music from other parts of the world (particularly on The Monkey King and Wedding In Madagascar). Clearly, there is an aspect of musical tourism here. Parks does not completely inhabit these traditions and approaches, but rather subsumes them to his own peculiar, synaesthetic vision.
For all its frequently serious themes, there’s a mirth and playfulness throughout Songs Cycled, and it’s not difficult to see Parks’ approach as a possible source for the purposeful theatricality of a band such as Sparks. The opening Dreamin’ Of Paris and Hurricane Katrina-referencing Missin’ Missippi, with their alternating flux between languid beauty and ribald frivolity, are particularly brilliant examples of his style (the latter is greatly aided by the vocal contributions of Inara George). He is one of only a small handful of musicians to have really experimented with the song form, transforming it into something truly unpredictable where possibilities seem infinite.
Lyrically, his work remains a complex lattice of internal rhymes (“the soiled foil of her hull” in Black Gold), brisk alliteration and mysterious allusions and imagery. It is whimsical and playful and not to all tastes (Mike Love famously reacted strongly against it). There is certainly no doubting its range, depth and wild invention and Parks’ skills as an arranger (using a broad array of instrumentation from woodwind instruments to steel pans) really enable him to bring his weird, evocative creations to life. He also sounds impressive vocally here too, executing his complex phrases with detectable confidence and relish. In spite of his reputation as a collaborator, Parks remains the very definition of a musical auteur.