Record review: Van Dyke Parks – Songs Cycled (2013, LP)

With a career spanning several decades and many genres of music, he defies classification. Of course he is most well-known for his work with The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson (describing himself as a victim of Wilson’s buffoonery), but the fact he has worked with artists as diverse as Rufus Wainwright and Skrillex is often overlooked. All hail, it’s the return of living legend Van Dyke Parks with his first album since 1995.

It’s been forty-five years since his debut album Song Cycle, and his work has been ineffectively described as eccentric, quirky, or quaint ever since. The fact that, at seventy, he looks like a university professor has probably encouraged such descriptions, but there’s so much more to Parks than meets the eye. Songs Cycled is a beautiful mix of classical ballads, psychedelia, piano tinkling, and fantastical child-like lyrical landscapes that paint visual pictures with grace and style.

Opener ‘Dreaming of Paris’ could be the soundtrack for a Disney film set in the French capital, although is apparently about the US bombing of Baghdad, while ‘Hold Back Time’ follows in a similar vein. The grandiose ‘Wall Street’ was written by Parks as a tribute to the people who jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers as they burned; a dark story hidden behind a typically quirky (there’s that word again) track.

There are a couple of fine covers on which Parks pays homage to his musical favourites, including ‘Sassafras’ by Billy Edd Wheeler, and ‘Aquarium’ by Camille Saint-Saens, and while this album should be appreciated by music-lovers the world over, it probably won’t be. Van Dyke Parks doesn’t fit into any pigeon-hole, and while that makes his music inaccessible to a lot of people, it’s also what makes him great.