This review comes from the Pitchfork Media website, dated May 6th of this year. The great Van Dyke Parks…
Whole-tone mandolin plinks, the playful hiccup of an accordion, waves of strings, and a middle school band closet’s worth of the finest Latin percussion: 10 seconds into Songs Cycled and it’s already hard to imagine blaming this music on anyone but Van Dyke Parks.
His first high-profile job was as an arranger from songs from Disney’s The Jungle Book, and almost nothing about his essential style has changed since. A Van Dyke Parks song is fussy, dense, and well-mannered but has a flair for mischief. It is simple in rhythm but complex in harmony. It is preferential to funny noises. It is deeply American – like banjos on the porch American – and yet like all good American things is preoccupied by what it finds exotic, whether it’s Trinidadian Calypso or mid-period French Romanticism. It can be broken down into a million pieces and subjected to intense ethnomusicological analysis. The best of them also happen to be easy and satisfying to whistle.
Songs Cycled collects six 7″ singles he has released over the past few years through his own label, Bananastan. “Bananastan” is a very Parksian construction: A fictional foreign country named after something people eat for breakfast. (It’s out now on Bella Union in the UK and in July in the US.) Like all his albums, it’s cheerful and maddeningly detailed. At times it can feel like musical theater minus the stage, or like a tiny jewelry box, beautiful to behold but too small to actually put anything in. Its songs reflect dryly on corporate greed and joyfully on a woman named Sassafras, whose kisses are so hot she turns swimming holes to steam.
A lot of what’s here has appeared before, elsewhere and in different forms. “The All Golden” was on his 1968 debut Song Cycle; “Hold Back Time” was on his 1995 collaboration with the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Orange Crate Art. “Aquarium” is actually a 1971 recording of the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, performing Parks’s arrangement of a section from Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals.
And then there’s the traditional music that belongs to nobody. “Amazing Grace” appears briefly, as does the indestructible hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. “The Parting Hand” is a song traditionally sung in Sacred Harp meetings, a type of unaccompanied choral music known for its clear, bellowing sound. When they appear they appear more as quotes than centerpieces; small towns seen from trains.
It makes sense that Parks retreads older material: He is one of those rare artists who seems to have come out fully formed, with a clear, narrow and diamond-hard vision of what he wanted his music to be. Listening to his discography can be like listening to a manic, brilliant person try and explain the same idea to you over and over again from slightly different perspectives, flapping their hands excitedly, sulking when you confess you still don’t quite get it, then waving it all away with yet another joke you won’t understand until three hours later.
One of the ironies of Parks’s music is that there’s so much going on that it can be hard to figure out what to pay attention to. He rarely sticks to a single theme or emotion. (“Busy” is not an emotion.) He is fluent in simple folksy languages but has a compulsion about speaking in any fewer than five of them at once. Rich, dense moments worthy of human attention fly by one after the other, like a wall where pictures are hung frame-to-frame.
At best Songs Cycled deals in quick-pivot moments: the stark, unified sound of the choir on “The Parting Hand” giving way to a misty string section, or Parks’s wiry voice snapping out of the confusion of “Wall Street” with a line like “There is just nothing but ash in the air/ Confetti all colored with blood.” What these moments do – especially in the context of music so dense and restless – is frame Parks’s range. In an instant, he reminds you of the extremes he’s capable of: Cynicism and tenderness; clear lyricism and manic density; buttoned-up orchestras and dressed-down steel bands.
I often think I would like his music more if it were simpler and more direct. Clearly he’s capable of it. (I’ve always liked 1972’s Discover America best partially because it allows me to imagine Parks as a cruise-ship entertainment director, but more because it just isn’t as cluttered as some of his other albums.)
But his stubbornness is part of who he is. “I guess I am like that rusty nail that sticks out, just waiting to be hammered down by an intolerant bastard,” he wrote this year. In 1968, at the height of blues-derived psychedelic rock, he released Song Cycle, an album essentially rejecting all music made after 1940. Under his suspenders and little straw hats, Van Dyke Parks is often crafting some highly refined iteration of the sentiment fuck y’all.
Ultimately, he’s an artist whose shortcomings are all products of his ambition. There are worse places to be. Some artists run out of ideas; Parks seems to constantly have three more than the typical cognitive load of the human brain allows.
His albums don’t capture lightning in a bottle, they exist as documents of all the effort he put into them. In the end it’s that effort – that joyful, obsessive effort of the solitary man tinkering in his study from sunup to sundown again – that makes him sympathetic. “Lest I get ahead of you,” he wrote in 2011. “My heart will be in the work.” Not “art,” not “expression,” but work: that thing we all have to do but only at our best seem to enjoy doing. “Work” is – and has always been – Parks’s forte. If he misses the forest for the trees it’s only because he’s having too much fun sculpting the ridges on each beautiful inch of bark.