Review Summary: This is not pop music
Song Cycle, the first album from enigmatic songwriter and musician Van Dyke Parks, is less a “song cycle” in the traditional meaning of the phrase and more an elaborate art piece – a structural and sonic analysis of the “pop song”. Instrumental ideas float to the surface and coalesce, only to be pulled away from the listener by the next movement-within-a-movement. Parks’s voice wraps itself around these strange sounds, buoying the experience of listening to the album yet adding to the strangeness by its insular qualities. This is music that, for better or worse, demands the listener accept it at its own terms – a novel experiment that, regardless of its success as a “pop” album, stands as a singular creative statement.
“Vine Street” is a brilliant choice of opener – it initiates the listener through a labyrinthine soundscape, from which a dreamy ode to the past emerges atop a sea of fluttering strings and jangly piano sounds. A mythical sun-kissed city emerges from the mist as a memory of innocence is recounted, with mysterious interludes between vocal passages suggesting the sound of passing cars and pedestrians below the stoop. “Palm Desert” doubles down on this imagery, painting a picture of Hollywood as a land of opportunity and constant sunshine. Despite the joyous nature of the sounds and the words Parks is singing, something is amiss – the dream too perfect to be real, a darkness lingering on the “banks of toxicity” (with a curious emphasis on the “city” in “toxicity”). Is Parks singing from a place of nostalgia, or as a more sinister indictment of the Californian microcosm within the American Dream? In either case, there is a veiled sadness here and throughout the album that this place will drift away and the dream will end.
The sorrowful yet intricately orchestrated “Widow’s Walk” and the sprightly “Donovan’s Colours” showcase Parks’s talent in arrangements. In the former, a sprouting keyboard gives way to Spanish guitars and fluttering accordions that manage to add distinct flavors to the song without being tacky or cloying. The lyrics addressing the titular widow are abstract without losing their emotional touch, striking a balance between artfulness and sentiment. The latter transforms a ‘60s folk song into a suite-like kaleidoscope, ebbing between instrumental passages seamlessly despite their different rhythms and timbres. It plays as a symphony in miniature, managing to make what would be an uninteresting interlude in less capable hands into an attraction in its own right.
These flourishes of light come at the cost of accessibility – absent are the verse-chorus song templates found in general popular music. Lyrics trade in infectiousness for wordplay and esoteric references. Any given “song” might have multiple, radically different movements and melodies. Where Parks’s work with Brian Wilson on the Smile album met the listener halfway, combining these avant-garde impulses with pop-minded songwriting, Parks is clearly aiming for something radically different and arguably more compelling here. While this might turn off listeners looking for “pop” in the conventional sense, any patient listener willing to absorb the sounds of this album after a few listens will easily see why this album’s sound design and experimental nature are so fascinating. A “song cycle” it is not; a bold and adventurous move it most certainly is.