ALBUM REVIEW: Van Dyke Parks – Songs Cycled

van dyke parks songs cycled

Written for the 405

 

Last year I wrote about a trio of reissues from musical polymath Van Dyke Parks’ back catalogue; specifically, the solo albums that him took him from being the man who wrote some of the Beach Boys’ biggest hits to the man who lost Warner Bros. Records $35,509 and erm kind of stayed at that level (whilst making some excellent music).

What I enjoyed most about that loose trilogy – Song CycleDiscover America and Clang Of The Yankee Reaper – was how they existed as historical documents of both Parks’ and popular music’s own development over the years, from pastoral, classically-infused pop to incorporating influences from across the world. I kind of expectedSong Cycled, the septuagenarian’s first album for nearly twenty years, to follow that format: here we would see how the great, ingenious Parks has evolved his music to fit into the eclectic, modern world of music. Spoiler: I was disappointed.

Song Cycled, like many albums by the elder statesman of music, can’t be a totally bad album because there’s still a high level of polish in the arrangements and compositions. It can, however, be bad because those arrangements are hopelessly outdated, and not in an endearing “vintage” way; in an embarrassing “Oh God, Dad’s wearing that suit that didn’t even look cool in the seventies” way. The simple rhymes of ‘Dreaming of Paris’ (“Catching a flight/Up into the night”) are frustratingly quaint; the addition of steel drums, a favourite of Parks in his Trinidad-recorded albums, doesn’t seem quite as daring now we’ve heard Jamie xx use them.

The record is the polar opposite of the humiliating attempts of said older statesmen to try and connect with the hip musical style of the moment and, in a way, it’s almost worse: what sounded daring and fresh in the sixties now sounds incredibly backwards, silly, old hat. It’s not an indictment of aged music – I’m not one of those people who won’t want black and white movies because they look old – it’s just an assurance that you can’t expect what worked decades ago to work the same now. That’s why Ford aren’t still selling the Model T, or why I’m not writing this on a Turing machine.

In fact, the original Song Cycle sounds more exciting and brave today than this album, which at times has all the energy and ingenuity – and lyrical dexterity – of an am-dram Stephen Sondheim production. Parks is still in good voice, and the chamber pop style is decidedly well-constructed. It just sounds hopelessly anachronistic – even with attempts to be topical in the lyrics with insultingly basic songs like ‘Money Is King’ and ‘Wall Street’, which don’t even keep the rest of the album’s hop-skip temp – in the worst possible way. It’s an album out of time.

3/10

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