Van Dyke Parks – Song Cycle [Warner Bros., 1968]

Van Dyke Parks - Song CycleThe man who co-wrote Brian Wilson’s lost (and rediscovered) opus, The Beach Boys’ Smile, must have always thought he had a record in him. It probably didn’t enter into his mind, though, that it would quietly take on a mythical status in the same way that Smile, that most lauded and cherished of follies, did.
Van Dyke Parks, a slight guy with a fine line in bizarre, innovative instrumental arrangements, creates sounds that embody the very essence of capricious experimentation. And this first album is where it is at its most potent and enjoyable.

Song Cycle (remastered and reissued by Bella Union alongside two follow-up LPs, Discover America and Clang of the Yankee Reaper) is the ultimate confection. It flits impishly between snippets of winsome folk, flourishes of woodwind and clanging percussion and cheeky quotes of Beethoven in ways that, for all his innovation, Brian Wilson would probably never have attempted. Densely clouded with fluffy strings, reverbed vocals and some magical Hollywood musical sprinklings, one doesn’t dip into Song Cycle – one is enveloped by it.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy going. The covers of Randy Newman’s Vine Street and Donovan’s Colours are perhaps the simplest nuggets to digest here, but the real rewards lie in more difficult works. The grinding violin solo of By the People, the funereal opening of Widow’s Walk and the encroaching stress of All Golden are all eye-widening moments of pure inspiration. But they all drown in idiosyncrasy that’ll either appeal or alienate.

All of these musical difficulties give the record an unpredictable quality, the sense that it might lurch off into realms unknown just when you were starting to relax. And that’s probably why it was never a hit.

In a way, it’s a blessing that Van Dyke Parks’ lofty attempt to catalogue and innovate within American popular and classical music remained undiscovered for so long. It sold fairly miserably on its original 1968 release and has only really been evangelised by Beach Boys completists. Perhaps now, in an age where rediscovery is as culturally valuable as looking forwards, this gem will receive the adulation it deserves.

Daniel Ross

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. Originally published on BBC Music.

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