Zac Pennington is one half of the basically un-Google-able group Popular Music, and was formerly the creative director for the band Parenthetical Girls. He currently lives in Melbourne, Australia.
Popular Music’s new album, Minor Works, is out Friday, October 13 via Sanitarium Sound Services.
Opinions are fickle things. What appeals to the pleasure centers at first blush doesn’t always maintain stamina. Likewise, the longer it takes for someone to absorb the full breadth of a thing, the less likely it is to be understood by the time it’s criticized. This is the inbuilt flaw in the nature of contemporary cultural criticism — a mechanism that insists we engage, absorb, and appraise media almost as soon as it’s created. It’s a cycle that inevitably omits the importance of re-appraisal — where complexity and patience isn’t incentivized, and where knee-jerk impressions and subjective biases masquerade as objective truths. If this all sounds didactic and obvious, that’s because it is — but it’s necessary for me to explain just why the task at hand (i.e., a review of the latest Van Dyke Parks album) feels to me somehow perverse.
There’s a couple of facts I guess I should dispense with: Van Dyke Parks’ debut album, 1968’s Song Cycle, is my very favorite album. Secondly, like virtually everything I have a lasting love for, I was initially repulsed by it. It took a year or two for me to feel like I had the slightest grasp on it — its dense and impenetrable mystery assuring that in all of the years that I’ve known it, I’ve never known it. For me, Song Cycle is the Great American Pop Album, if there is such a thing — a work of art that spills itself so completely into every possible contour of its medium that its riches continue to reveal themselves even after hundreds of listens. It’s the sort of work whose critics bemoan it as over-reaching, pretentious, fussy, too clever for its own good — but seriously, fuck those people, and god bless pop music with enough daring to take itself this seriously.
But it requires patience. Song Cycle is the work of a 24-year-old magician — a one-of-kind confluence of arrogance, naiveté, and ambition that could only be a grand first statement. It’s not the sort of thing that necessarily reads the first or fifth or twenty-fifth listen — it’s stubborn, dense, and willfully elusive. I’m glad that in all of the disillusionment of adulthood, I’ve been able to hold onto it as a sort of mythical constant — a blissful ignorance of its mechanics that keeps this dusty curio so exciting to me. Because the thrill of the magic trick is never in knowing how it’s done.
Van Dyke Parks, now a genteel and distinguished septuagenarian, is celebrating his most revered work’s sapphire anniversary with the release of Songs Cycled, his first solo studio record in nearly a quarter century. It’s a fraught title. Like basically everything the man’s ever put his pen upon, it’s at once cheeky and reverent — contextualizing the record’s grand and noble intentions, the title is also utterly and artlessly utilitarian: Songs Cycled is a compilation comprised of self-released recordings Parks has churned out on 45 RPM singles over the last couple of years. (This duality is of course intentional — the man’s bowel movements should come with footnotes.) Still, it’s loaded — and, for me at least, sacred. This fear has a lot of precedence: Picture the all-too-common elder pop statesmen who, in the wake of a modest cultural boost by a handful of well-placed acolytes, have exhumed the poorly-preserved corpse of past accomplishment and paraded it around until all of the flesh has fallen off. Even with full confidence in his legacy of tasteful nostalgism, it’s a troubling proposition — and while it’s both uncharitable and unwise to compare a pair of records separated by some 45 years and a career’s worth of unconventional accomplishments, Parks hasn’t really given us a lot of choice. But in its strange way, Songs Cycled stands up to the challenge.
Instrumental opener “Wedding in Madagascar” sweeps in almost in caricature: affirming that this is, aggressively and unmistakably, a Van Dyke Parks record. Much of Songs Cycled is aggressive, easily Parks’ pushiest record since its namesake. Though less ambitious, it doesn’t adhere to the same post-traumatic humility that seems to have marked many of Parks’ latter pop accomplishments. When his reedy, grinning tenor finally enters on “Dreaming of Paris,” it feels like a calypso call to arms: Its arrangements and language are both dense and ouroboric, with modernized nods to the sudden subitos and swirling atmospheric shifts of its conceptual predecessor. In lesser hands this might seem like pandering to his own conceit — fortunately, Parks has made a career out of keeping a weather eye on his rearview mirror, and handles it with grace and elegance.1
It’s always been clear that Parks values musical hindsight as his greatest asset, and Songs Cycled is predictably rich with remembrance — cribbing ancient Americana from Sacred Harp spirituals and Shaker hymns (“The Parting Hand,” “Amazing Graces”) with the same reverential irreverence of his mentor Aaron Copland. Parks even manages a couple of positive historical revisions from his own career: his delicate and sentimental take on “Hold Back Time” — a song from his 1995 Brian Wilson collab Orange Crate Art — rescues the song from Wilson’s burnout caterwaul; while “Aquarium” — a lovely arrangement of Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals — is unearthed from an Esso Trinidad Steel Band record he produced in 1971.
With so much of his work consumed with the past, the real draw of Songs Cycled has to do with something significantly more novel: it has new songs. His bona fides as an arranger are beyond reproach, and the world has seen no shortage of his work in that field over the last few decades. Personally though, I’ve always been partial to VDP as a songwriter — his famously Joycean verse, his elegant melodies, his triple entendres — and though the record is pretty sparsely populated with originals, it is his first harvest in well over a decade. And he’s got some things to say. Politics have long been a subtext of Parks’ songs, but Songs Cycled’s imagery is undeniably explicit: there’s a calypso’d critique of the 1% (“Money Is King”), a lovely and ornate re-imagining of the 2002 Prestige oil spill (“Black Gold”), a sprightly yarn on the post-Katrina South (“Missin’ Missippi”), and a vivid, disconcertingly cheerful musical theater nod to 9/11 (“Wall Street,” sample lyric: “confetti all colored with blood”). Of all the compositional acrobatics Parks tackles throughout the record, this might be the most formidable: in the glut of pop’s dalliances with politics, there are exactly eight political pop songs in the history of forever that don’t come off as preachy, condescending, reductive, or totally wrong-headed. Though I’d be lying to say that I feel everything on the album works in this respect, there’s nothing that feels embarrassing or markedly out-of-touch — no small feat for a 70-year-old white man, even one as adroit as VDP — and Parks’ particular brand of sloping verse seems surprisingly well suited to the task.
As a juggler of so much sonic and conceptual disparity, Parks’ work is ever skillful, but never effortless. On the contrary, Songs Cycled is in places as lumbering and unwieldy as anything he’s ever done — and that’s a big part of its charm. Though it never feels labored, it’s clearly a document of tremendous effort — effort that demands patience and diligence in return. Having only been immersed in its opulent interiors for what at press time amounts to scarcely two weeks, the only definitive feeling I can attach to it is one of humility; that, and a sinking feeling that — should history be any indication — to presume to critique it without at least a couple years due diligence is at best hasty, and at worst totally perverse.
1This brings us to a concern that’s particular to an artist who, like Parks, chooses to self-consciously paraphrase his or her own past: the ephemeral magic of a moment. The original Song Cycle is an album admired as much for its peculiar sonic antiquity — the combination of meticulously ordered compositions and mechanically disordered events, the product of splicing four-track tape in a process Parks himself has likened to musique concrète — as it is for its compositional innovation. It’s part gearheaded nostalgia, part retro-fetishism, but for a convenient case in point, we needn’t look much further than the last few chapters of the convoluted Smile saga for a clear comparison. Contrasting Brian Wilson’s soulless SMiLE mulligan from 2004 with The SMiLE Sessions originals, and the difference is unmistakable. (Click here to return to the piece.)