April 4, 2015

Van Dyke Parks - Song Cycle, 1967

Another one from the canon. Song Cycle is deranged. It riffs on all things Americana: gospel, bluegrass, orchestral ballads, folk, show tunes, marching bands, movie scores, ragtime, waltzes, girl groups, and pop rock, but it never settles into any of these shapes. People call it impenetrable, but I think it's, ahem, too penetrable, too open and slippery and rife with forks in the road. It's psychedelic insofar as every measure seems to want to tug away and break off into several different songs, leaving the listener in many places (and times!) all at once, volatile and hanging off of a musical precipice. It's nauseating, beautiful, and a tiny bit misanthropic.

As a teenager, my first dozen listens left me unable to remember anything about what I had just listened to, what had just happened, and yet despite it being so elusive, you can't stop listening, trying to grab hold of it. I'm sure this is a pretty typical response, and Parks himself sums it up best in this anecdote:
When I played the album for Joe Smith, the president of the label, there was a stunned silence. Joe looked up and said, "Song Cycle"? I said, "Yes," and he said, "So, where are the songs?" And I knew that was the beginning of the end.
A massively expensive commercial flop, the record was originally supposed to be entitled Looney Tunes, and it does feel cartoonish and larger than life. Most of it is accompanied by Parks's reedy, androgynous vocals--he sounds like a jaded, aging chorus girl who's smoked a few packs too many, singing sardonically to an empty theater. Clearly he's amused by this whole thing. The opener, "Vine Street," is Steve Young covering a Randy Newman song, and it fades in midway through the song and fades out before it's finished. Track six, the cheekily titled "Van Dyke Parks," is a minute long clip of a gospel hymnal, almost completely masked by what sounds like a helicopter making a water landing. The closer, "Pot Pourri" (probably another joke title, given that it's the least hodgepodge track in the cycle), finds Parks alone with a piano, padded by a thick hiss of room tone, and the song doesn't exactly end so much as stop--presumably leaving it open-ended and the cycle unbroken, ready for another go round.

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