As The Cycle Returns to Bliss
There are moments in the world when you are walking around amidst a hustle-bustle weekend afternoon, when people are rushing off to this place and that and you are so overwhelmed that you have to sit down and deconstruct the scene for a moment. Van Dyke Parks’ Songs Cycled, a collection of previously released singles, is kind of like that. However, this is not out of place for Parks, who while nodding to his 1968 debut album Song Cycle, lays out a fresh and new landscape into which his quirky material nicely fits.
Parks, a legendary figure of the modern pop era, has always been somewhat a unique character amongst his peers, even when working with some of pop’s most bizarre idols like Frank Zappa and, perhaps most famously, Brian Wilson. One thing that remains consistent amongst of all of Parks’ works, however, is that he is a student of music. From the opening shimmy of the jangly chorded “Wedding in Madagascar” to the acapella introduced spiritual, “The Parting Hand,” it is easy to recognize the wide breadth of Parks’ musical knowledge and interests.
Still, even for those who style themselves sophisticated pop music aficionados, some aspects of Parks seem off-putting at first, especially if this is an introduction to his work. His quavery voice sounds, at times, young and bright and other times dusky and eccentric. “Sassafrass” is a good example of this, with Parks sounding like an junk shopkeeper singing an old shanty while a string quartet falls off the top shelf, and yet one can’t help but marvel at the pure beauty and comedy of it all. The jumpy and serene, “The All Golden,” (a re-recording of a track from his debut) also proves to confuse and bewilder, before finally entrancing, the listener.
Every song on the album is worth a listen and some study, as the almost chaotic nature—think somewhere between Tom Waits and Randy Newman in this regard— will undoubtedly be too much for a single listen. “Aquarium,” a run-through of a piece by late 18th-early 19th century French composer Camille Saint-Saens is almost unnerving as the original, but with an added Joe Meek sense of warping the steelpan instrumental with nautical illuminations. And much like Meek, once the layer of confusion peels off, the wonder of it all is left; the mouth goes agape trying to process what you just heard.
Thus, Songs Cycled is successful in a two-fold manner. Its quirky, yet studied compositional style is still a revelation after forty-five years, solid and flawless throughout while never holding back a melody from the front of the mix. Secondly, it is so thrillingly unique that it achieves a sort of timelessness that many who similarly play with the tenets of pop would yearn for. And though it sounds at times like the audio equivalent of a ferris wheel, this is truly the music of the American cosmopolitan, the American off-kilter, and it is thus in the best way possible, so very American indeed.