It is both understandable and unfortunate that the solo career of Van Dyke Parks has been overshadowed by his collaborations with Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Understandable, as their collaboration produced one of the most celebrated albums in pop music history, Pet Sounds, as well as the mythical sessions for the aborted Smile project; unfortunate, as the solo works of Van Dyke Parks, while less accessible, have been no less interesting.
While it sold next to nothing upon its release in 1968, Parks’ debut Song Cycle has been hailed by rock critics and indie music snobs alike as one of the earliest and most successful concept albums. In certain respects, it sounds very much like a product of its time, with occasionally wild, psychedelic arrangements and over-the-top instrumentation that overshadows Parks’ gift for writing beautiful melodies. Five years later, Parks would release one of the most criminally underappreciated albums of the 1970s. Discover America is a wonderfully bizarre, immaculately produced, and eminently listenable suite of Calypso, 1930s pop, and Southern rock; it is also the perfect soundtrack to a cross-continent road trip.
Van Dyke Parks’ newest release, Songs Cycled, fits somewhere in between Song Cycle and Discover America, sampling a wide variety of musical traditions while at the same time supported by the songwriter’s pop sensibility. Parks’ first release of original material in more than a decade, Songs Cycled is mostly composed of seven-inch singles which the artist has been quietly releasing over the past three years, though the album is best digested as a whole, with remarkable flow and steady pacing throughout.
Some listeners will find Songs Cycled overwhelming. There is a lot going on here, though on repeat listens it becomes clear that the artist has everything well under control. Fans who appreciated the micromanaged bombast of the Beach Boys’ recently (and finally) released Smile will find much to appreciate on Songs Cycled.
Part of what made Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks such a successful songwriting partnership in the 1960s was the pair’s shared reverence for the original architects of American popular music. Although Pet Sounds remains one of the most innovative and forward-thinking pop albums of all time, the songs themselves sound as if they belong in the Great American Songbook. Songs Cycled, too, boasts melodies that would have made as much sense in 1933 as in 2013, though the lyrics occasionally acknowledge the political and environmental tumult of the early 21st century.
In many ways this is the most timely and political album of Parks’ career. Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and the financial crisis are all explored here, though it takes a keen ear to tease out the references; Parks’ principal talents have always been in constructing intricate melodies and arrangements, and the lyrics are often overshadowed by the blunt force of the music accompanying them, not to mention the obvious pleasure Parks takes in singing them. Parks’ voice has always been a thin and limited instrument, though few vocalists could enunciate such complex lines with similar precision and joy.
It is unsurprising that Van Dyke Parks found limited success upon embarking on a solo career in the late 1960s. In the wake of Sgt. Pepper, the songwriter’s nods to Cole Porter and Gershwin seemed antiquated and passé. In light of the recent avalanche of quirky, independent, orchestral-inspired pop-rock, Parks seems to “fit” better in 2013 than in 1968. The urgent “Missin’ Mississippi” sounds like it could be a Dirty Projectors b-side, while the wistful “Hold Back Time” would not have sounded out of place on any of Rufus Wainwright’s recent efforts. In all of this, the immense debt that modern rock and pop artists owe to Van Dyke Parks becomes clear.
Van Dyke Parks has been pushing the boundaries of the possible in American popular music for more than four decades, all the while retaining a timeless Tin Pan Alley sensibility. It seems unlikely that the artist will ever be widely recognized for his contribution, but in the meantime, Songs Cycled should provide energy and inspiration for VDP evangelists everywhere.