Album review: Van Dyke Parks: Songs Cycled

Van Dyke Parks' new album is an odd mix that manages to convey his 'eco-political' take on Americana. Picture: Contributed
Van Dyke Parks' new album is an odd mix that manages to convey his 'eco-political' take on Americana. Picture: Contributed
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Brian Wilson’s collaborator on Smile doesn’t make solo albums often, and his latest is an eccentric treat with typically complex and clever wordplay

Van Dyke Parks: Songs Cycled

Bella Union, £13.99

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If Van Dyke Parks had done nothing else with his musical skills, he would still be assured a place in pop lore for his role as lyricist on Smile, the great lost Beach Boys album which, thanks to Brian Wilson’s fertile comeback of recent times, is lost no more. Back in 1967, Parks helped to push Wilson’s musical world well beyond cars, girls, surf and sunshine with his clever, complex wordplay, so it was only appropriate that he be invited back to complete the album almost 40 years later.

There have been a number of Wilson/Parks collaborations over the years, including another song cycle, That Lucky Old Sun, in 2008. But there is more to Parks than his kinship with Wilson. This former child actor has earned his crust as a session musician, playing briefly with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and on The Byrds’ trippy Fifth Dimension album, but is most in demand as an arranger, his work spanning from Jungle Book favourite The Bare Necessities to albums by Rufus Wainwright and Joanna Newsom.

Albums with his name above the titles are thinner on the ground. Parks has never fitted the commercial mould, despite – or maybe because of – his erudite fidelity to the craft of popular songwriting. Like many a younger musician, he has found that if he wants to do things his way, he needs to make it happen himself. In order to fund Songs Cycled, he produced a series of double A-side 7-inches of its songs to sell at his shows.

Thus everything on Songs Cycled has already been released in some form or other. Many of the tracks are re-recordings of older Parks compositions or covers drawn from eclectic sources, while the new material can be classed as protest songs, done Parks-style.

But this odd mix all hangs together to convey his self-styled “eco-political” take on Americana, one which encompasses jazz, Broadway and Tin Pan Alley influences, and has been broadened further by his travels to include Afro-Caribbean and Latin traditions. The title is a reference to his debut album, Song Cycle, which was released in 1968 following his severance from the Smile sessions, but it is only one of a sea of references which the attentive listener can uncover. Parks’ sophisticated lyrics and maximalist arrangements demand close listening. Opening track Dreaming Of Paris, an impish chanson combining lavish strings, accordian and marimba in its souped-up pavement café arrangement, skips unexpectedly from a delighted description of an inflight meal and très chic reminiscences of the French capital to the bombing of Baghdad and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in a did-he-just-sing-what-I-thought-he-did heartbeat.

Later, he recounts Iberia’s biggest environmental disaster – the Prestige oil spill of 2002 – in the style of a Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht number, with a siren-like backing chorus reacting to his witty, lyrically dense narrative (“then she hit the water, with a shudder it had got her…a rage abroil from the soiled foil of her hull”). His delivery is flowery, but his point is blatant.

The similarly audacious Money Is King is a cautionary folk song co-written with calypso musician Growling Tiger, contrasting the fortunes of rich and poor (“a dog is better than you”), which oddly precedes the song Parks claims it picks up from. That song is Wall Street, a poetic 9/11 requiem which unfolds like a musical, with everyday trader banter giving way to “confetti covered with blood”, all set to Gershwin-referencing orchestration.

It is no accident that this is immediately followed by the soothing, elegiac a capella hymn The Parting Hand, which Parks rounds out with a wistful, pastoral instrumental coda.

He is equally adept at painting a poetic picture of his post Hurricane Katrina heartland on Missin’ Mississippi, with trilling songbird support from Inara George of The Bird & the Bee.

The rest of the album pulls together seemingly disparate threads, including an orchestral Appalachian arrangement of a dinky tune by Billy Edd Wheeler called Sassafras, a nostalgic waltz with hula and tango flourishes, originally composed for his 1995 Orange Crate Art collaboration with Brian Wilson, a symphonic bluegrass rendition of Amazing Grace by the Van Dyke Parks Orchestra and a 1971 steel band interpretation of Aquarium from Saint-Saën’s Carnival Of The Animals, which is echoed later by the undulating piano on The All Golden, a new version of a number from Song Cycle. If this all sounds a little mad, that’s because it is. Parks, never short of a metaphor, describes himself as “that rusty nail that sticks out”. I would soften that particular comparison to say that, aged 70, Van Dyke Parks still operates at that unusual point where talent, ambition and eccentricity meet.