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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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.