Van Dyke Parks – “Song Cycle” (1968)

November 20, 2008 at 9:08 am (Reviews & Articles, Van Dyke Parks)

Jim Miller wrote this review for Rolling Stone (issue #6), Feb. 24, 1968. Van Dyke had recently gone off on his own, after working on the then-aborted Smile album with Brian Wilson. Song Cycle got great reviews but was a poor seller for Warner Bros. – I believe one of their worst selling albums of all time, if I’m not mistaken…


Rock music is finally becoming composed music, growing from Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach. Bacharach contributed a purely popular legacy while Spector with Jack Nitzsche remained in the rock mainstream; out of them grew the Beach Boys, with Pet Sounds remaining the greatest romantic statement in rock writing. The Beatles have never essentially participated in this field, theirs being ad hoc construction of sound, a field the Mothers have invaded, as well as remaining to rock what Kurt Weill was to the musical theater. Meanwhile Motown has always canned arrangements in metrically divided temporal space even more sophisticated than Spector; yet until now only the Mothers have broken away from song structure, the now being Van Dyke Parks, co-author of the last Beach Boy record of merit (“Heroes and Villains”), and now in charge of Song Cycle.
Van Dyke Parks may come to be considered the Gertrude Stein of the new pop music, for unlike the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, his is not mass circulation music, in fact it approaches being an inaccessible lattice work of structured sound, which in itself is a major contribution to formalism in rock. In “The All-Golden” the possibility of sound as music within in the framework of form (and not à la Milton Babbit) comes through very clearly in several seconds of a train whistle that only slowly manifests itself as the train whistle it is; the record is full of such musical about-faces (such as the variations on “Donovan’s Colours”), from tack piano to balalaika to bomb (the possibility explored with the suggestive silence between “The All Golden” and “Van Dyke Parks”). Parks is a romantic in many ways, but his structure is strangely open, progressing across space much as George Shearing’s conceptions for guitar, vibes and piano.
Parks can’t really sing (not like Brian), so his voice is transfigured into taped mutations, becoming an integral part of his lush/noise compositional structure. Compared to an earlier, quite pretentious try at composed rock (Chad and Jeremy’s “Progress Suite”), Song Cycle presents us with the work of a creative genius. The album is hardly perfect, but familiarity breeds awe a what, for a first album, has been accomplished. If the Beatles pull themselves together, this may be their next stop in the breakaway from song form variations on a theme—significantly though, Van Dyke Parks is there first. Listening to Song Cycle may not bring love but it most certainly will bring music liberation.

Jim Miller

1 Comment

  1. Mike Melvoin said,

    I have been asked whether I knew any particular recording on which I played was a work of art.
    This was quite simply (HA!) the most sophisticated pop music I had experienced before or have since! And I am fortunate to call Van Dyke my friend. And he still is the real thing. An artist.

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