Reviewed: Songs Cycled by Van Dyke Parks

Revolution in the head.

Songs Cycled (Bella Union)
Van Dyke Parks

In 1968, Warner Brothers took out a fullpage ad in Billboard for Van Dyke Parks’s album Song Cycle, which read: “How we lost $35,509.50 on ‘The Album Of The Year’ (Dammit)”. Two weeks later, it ran another, offering two new copies of the doomed disc in exchange for one used one, for a nominal fee of one cent. The ads were by the maverick copywriter Stan Cornyn, who’d worked out that the less a record sold, the cooler it became – but Parks was always a non-commercial proposition. He is best known for facilitating Brian Wilson’s baroque dreams (and nightmares) as the lyricist for the Beach Boys’ unfinished Smile album. As an LA session man and producer, he spent time in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and worked with Randy Newman, Tim Buckley and Phil Ochs, among many others.

His solo work – classical, cabaret, Cal-pop, calypso – was always too esoteric for mainstream tastes: he’s the sort of musician who calls Ry Cooder a “Trinidadian” and doesn’t think that needs any explanation. But in 2013 we love all that stuff and, at 70, Parks is busier than he was at 45, bussed to festivals across the globe to talk with aphoristic economy on royalties, rights and the globalisation of rock like a kind of musical Mark Twain.

He provides unusual angles on the people he has worked with (“Harry Nilsson had detergent depth – tell him the date you were born and he’d tell you what day of the week it was”) and he genuinely believes that the casualties of rock’n’roll (Hendrix, Joplin and so on) “died in their efforts to bring music into a political potency” – which is both quaint and inspiring, depending on how you look at it. Recently, the 25-year-old LA dance producer Skrillex contacted him for a collaboration, declaring that they would “destroy the world together”. Naturally, Parks was sold.

His first solo album in 24 years is a collection of five original tracks, some new versions of old songs and some traditional material, with a title that says: “Here I am, as weird as I always was and maybe for the last time.” It arrives in a very different world from what faced its Sixties namesake: a post-Spotify landscape in which the kind of act that gets on Radio 2 might well play part of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals on steel pans (as Parks does on “Aquarium”) – or a titillating country song about a girl named after a herbal tea used in the homoeopathic treatment of chlamydia (“Sassafras”) – and not be considered dilettantish for doing so.

With its combination of pastoral grace and unexpected warps of key signature, Parks’s work as an orchestral arranger always sat well in psychedelia but he’s in essence a classical musician in the school of Gershwin and Bern - stein, with a bit of his former teacher Aaron Copland thrown in. Songs Cycled features several strange mini-musicals of the mind, the most chilling of which is “Wall Street”, a love song about 9/11 “jumpers” who leap hand in hand from the towers, “two flaming birds on fire”, and plummet to the pavement, leaving “no trace of their embrace”. He wrote it not long after the attacks as a response to the US government’s apparent efforts to erase the suiciders from the collective memory – though he couldn’t really release it at the time, having condemned Neil Young for writing a song called “Let’s Roll” about Flight 93. (“A Canadian citizen making a dime on the United States, calling them to war, is the height of stupidity,” he maintained recently.)

“Dreaming of Paris” is apparently a comment on the US bombing of Baghdad, though it must be the only song on the subject to include a mention of crème brûlée. Parks’s metaphors and internal rhymes (“It’s déjà vu, I’m tellin’ you”) tie his songs up in pretty bows, giving the impression that they are nothing but momentary escapes from real life. Given the brow-furrowing exegesis required to draw out their political meaning, it’s sometimes hard to buy his central idea that there is “nothing more precious than the song form to revolutionise popular thought”.

Then again, the notion that protest might be couched in light-hearted music is convincing – that’s the basis of his beloved calypso, after all – and the overall effect of these fleet-footed tunes is indeed one of powerful unease, especially in the tonguetrammelling, Tom Lehrer-style rhymes of “Black Gold”, which is all about the 2002 Prestige oil spill.

Parks attacks his work with a belief in the motivational power of music that seems unusual in this day and age. In his sleeve notes, he writes: “I am a rusty nail just waiting to be hammered down by an intolerant bastard with no room for what isn’t rockin’ or casually elite.” The only thing he’s got wrong is that there’s no one who wants to hammer him down.

Van Dyke Parks with Chad Kimball in 2005. Photo: Getty Images.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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