With his urge to chronicle America 'warts and all', Van Dyke Parks has straddled the divide between elite and popular culture to brilliant effect.
American magpie: on his new album, Van Dyke Parks returns to his first release 45 years on
Even at the age of 70, Van Dyke Parks retains all the qualities of a prodigy. In person, he has a spring in his step, in conversation an undimmed spark. But it’s in his music, particularly, that he remains ever young. A conceptual innovator, Parks is not one of those talents whose music needed to become more barnacled in order to demonstrate its maturity. Quite the opposite: just as they did on his 1967 debut album, a musicological journey across America called Song Cycle, his songs remain all about audacious lyricism and musical arrangement, his signature the ability to create an atmosphere of apparently guileless musical wonder.
Latterly, such big rock names as Grizzly Bear and Joanna Newsom have found much to draw on in his music. At the time of his debut, however, his recondite language and accomplished arrangements were divisive. Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, immediately recognised Parks, with his eyes and ears for past Americas, to be a kindred spirit, collaborating with him on his doomed project Smile. Wilson’s cousin, the conservative Beach Boys lead singer Mike Love, found his work incomprehensible. Rock critics, a Parks bugbear, but ironically now his most vocal supporters, said he was smarmy and opaque.
Songs Cycled, the first new Van Dyke Parks album for nearly 25 years, in some way marks an effort to rectify that last criticism. Not that anything about his music has changed – the lyrics are breathless, and complex; the arrangements filled with magic and surprise – but this is an album where Parks (alongside four new songs) revisits material from his back catalogue to reveal it anew for those who may not have completely understood it the first time round.
Throughout the CD package, explication is the key. There are lyrics, as you might expect. But then, compounding the sense of a personal and historical journey, there are fragments of autobiographical detail to accompany the songs. Hold Back Time, originally heard on the 1995 Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks album Orange Crate Art, recalls an idyllic suburban existence, occasionally punctuated by the hoot of a distant train. Parks has also been able to call on famous artists to illustrate the songs, which started life as a series of subscription-only singles. We are impressed by the company he keeps (one illustration is provided by Ed Ruscha). Still, we are also tacitly made aware that others, like Ruscha, have enjoyed greater success than he with an artistic ennobling of the everyday American artefact.
Earlier this month, Parks played a live show in London. While he had no autocue for his lyrics, he would occasionally thumb the screen of his iPad to prompt the correct anecdote. At one point, he expressed dissatisfaction with what he described as the “American rock hegemony”, and his disappointment with how he could be “in Prague, and hear someone play a Ry Cooder lick” – as if all American musical experience might be reduced to that. His own ongoing project, he stated, was a little different: “To present America, warts and all, without getting in the way.”
Today, “Americana” generally denotes just the kind of rootsy, blues and folk-derived music that one might expect to find on an album from someone like Ry Cooder. For Parks, however, the term continues to mean much more. With Songs Cycled, as he has done for five decades, he places himself in the middle ground between elite and popular cultures, harvesting from and dignifying both in the process. As the small audience at his show illustrated, it’s not always a route guaranteed to reap enormous rewards. Still, for those interested in music that urges a reconsideration of what popular music might be capable of encompassing, it’s eye-opening; delightful.
To create its unique effect, Songs Cycled casts its net widely, from the calypsos of Trinidad and Tobago, to African waltzes, to steel bands. In the album’s later stages, Parks looks for and finds spiritual guidance in a low church Sacred Harp hymn, The Parting Hand, whose stirring words and a cappella melody he positions as an island in a sea of troubling, introspective strings. For the closing track, Parks arranges the popular hymn tune into a gently swaying piece of southern muzak called Amazing Graces.
Throughout the album, America is presented, as Parks evidently hopes, warts and all. Such is his musical sophistication, however, one might well be completely seduced by the attractive appearance of the material here, before one realises the true character of what is being presented underneath the make-up. In the new compositions particularly, trenchant environmental-political criticisms of the United States are coated in a melodic sweetness that helps them slip down easily.
In Dreaming of Paris Parks describes a visit to the city with his wife in a jaunty tango and romantic orchestral language. As the song develops, however, we become aware that this is a story about military intervention, the date of the couple’s most recent visit (2003) and their first meeting in the city (1968) coinciding with the invasion of Iraq, and of an earlier disaster in Vietnam. The distance between the subject matter and the manner in which it is described here is satirical bordering on Pythonesque – it’s enjoyable, but it feels wrong to describe it as such.
Black Gold is fractionally less subtle, as Parks artfully juxtaposes ecological disasters and those who profit from the oil trade. The elegance of Parks’s lines (“Seaside panic scores of frantic birds/Yet antic as they slog through all/The augurs as an ecologic/Nightmare to be sure”) is a bitter contrast to the ruined wildlife they describe. Wall Street positions itself in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001 – a date, which Parks rightly suggests has hitherto elicited only one kind of American response. Suffice to say that Parks’s take – a pretty duet, picturing a sickly scene of black confetti – is vastly different from that response.
Towards the album’s close, Missin’ Missippi addresses the carnage in his birth state in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The bold colours of a protest song are possibly considered more of a young man’s game – here, Parks reconfigures them for the mature market, filled with undiminished anger, but anger that is all the more potent for its nuance and eloquence.
Parks has historically used a variety of surprising tools to honour his take on Americana. His 1972 album Discover America used calypso music – the generally seditious vernacular song of Trinidad and Tobago – not just as a way of addressing the military/political/oil business ambitions held by the United States in the region, but also as a source material – discovering there music of universal themes and salty expression that would translate well at home. Growling Tiger’s Money Is King, (“Whiskey, earring, diamond ring/Send them to your house on a motorbike/You can pay the bill whenever you like …”) is a song in the tradition of these. This satiric tale of social inequality is bitterly amusing, but sequenced as it is next to the savage Wall Street, it would seem that with this pair of songs Parks is inviting us to observe the geopolitical landscape and draw our own conclusions about how the US may have arrived at its current position.
Sequenced between Black Gold and Money Is King, meanwhile, we find the beautiful Aquarium, a piece by Saint-Saëns that is genuinely archival, deriving from the little-known 1971 album Van Dyke Parks Presents the Esso Trinidad Steel Band. A beautiful moment from an album of pop covers, it’s a warm but satirical piece – in which empty oil barrels are for once not agents of pollution and commerce but repurposed into musical instruments capable of serene beauty.
Some conceivably imagine an arranger’s art is about gilding the lily. As Parks demonstrates here, without intelligent sequencing and arrangement there’s a risk you might not reveal a song effectively at all. The All Golden, one of the most popular and potent, but equally most subtle, songs on Song Cycle exemplifies the idea.
Here, it is – comparatively speaking – stripped back to its bare bones, with piano and mandolin parts. Live, it was the last thing Parks played, solo at the piano after the band had left the stage. The song is a portrait of a country musician called Steve Young, but also puns heavily on the idea of “bearing arms” – whether working in the sun, or while holding a firearm – obviously potent images in a time of war and civil rights struggle.
It’s not a place of certainties, and his route through the landscape remains idiosyncratic, but the America of Van Dyke Parks is undoubtedly still a place you will recognise. Trying to understand just where he’s taking you is part of the point – after all, he’s redrawing the map all the time.
John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide’s rock critic. He lives in London.