What do you think would happen if somebody attempted to take the entire scope of American popular music from its inception until, let’s say, the First World War, and then condense all of it under a psychedelic microscope? Sounds like it would be a complete mess, right? Well, that’s a pretty fair description of what Van Dyke Parks attempted to do on ‘Song Cycle’, and it is a mess all right, but it’s a glorious one. Ragtime, bluegrass, gospel, orchestral music, marches, vaudeville, and show tunes all vie for space, often on the same song, to the point where it’s a reach to even refer to the variety of constructions as ‘songs’. The album is impossible to follow in any standard linear manner of listening, and don’t rely on guidance from the lyrics.
Here’s a sample from “Palm Desert”;
“Meanwhile in the wild west of Hollywood
Age is losing hold inasmuch as you are touched
To have withstood by the very old search
For the truth within the bounds of toxicity.
Left unsung so I have strung the frame.”
What??? Reading this crypto-quote is quite amusing, as the syllabics bounce off of one another like acid-drenched surreal poetry. It feels right, but remains impenetrable, but would you have expected less from Mr. Parks? After all, he is the man that supplied the bizarre word painting for Brian Wilson’s “Surf’s Up,” the masterpiece that contorted the other Beach Boys into fits of catatonic rage. Parks quit his partnership with Wilson just to keep the peace, and once that umbilical cord was cut, it set him free to create this absurdist oddity.
With “Song Cycle”, Van Dyke Parks established himself as a 20th Century Charles Ives, blending duplicitous genres into improbable compositions that most listeners would find impenetrable at best, and unlistenable as more probable, judging by sales. This Frankenstein monster cost a small fortune to produce and had about as much commercial potential as an album of gamelan music. It was a misconception of such mass proportion that, in retrospect, it’s sort of impossible to not respect the purity of Parks’ intentions. There is an artistic innocence, or maybe it’s a purity of vision, that makes this album impossible to resist. You don’t need to understand it to appreciate it. Just bask in the unique journey of “Song Cycle”, because there is nothing else like it.
December 1967 - Billboard: Did Not Chart
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