Call him prolific, call him profound—just don’t call Van Dyke Parks complex
With Van Dyke Parks’ new Songs Cycled (Bella Union), the renowned composer, arranger and vocalist (in that order), not only releases his first album of originals since 1995’s Orange Crate Art (with Brian Wilson singing), but lends his usually complex creations a renewed sense of simplicity. The thoughts may be determinedly complicated and touched by the soul of social protest, but Parks’ music is deliciously direct, while remaining as elegant as anything he’s done for himself (à la 1968’s chamber-pop initiator Song Cycle) or others (the Beach Boys and Rufus Wainwright amongst them).
Yet, no matter what good you say about his genius, Parks has a self-deprecating remark at the ready. Tell him you’ve spoken previously, and he’s quick to respond with, “And you’re back for more? What lie did I tell you?” When we discuss the vocals that playfully haunt several standards (“what I did to ‘Sassafras,’ I should be hung; it’s Spike Jones on a bad day”) or his own songs, Parks takes himself down. “I wish I had better chops, the voice I had before I started smoking,” he says. “I’m nostalgic about the time in my life when I had that falsetto break.”
Parks knows that critics hear an old-timey longing for the past in his music, but he disavows the accusation. Listening to Songs Cycled’s lyrics and the subjects tackled—9/11, Wall Street’s fall, Hurricane Katrina—there’s an immediacy of tone, a sound as bold as fresh ink on paper.
“You got that right,” he says with confident pride. “In every case, they were written within days of when, say, the Twin Towers fell or when Orleans Parish’s levee broke. It was spasmodic.
“Yet, I didn’t want to capitalize in any way on tragedy,” he continues, alluding to Neil Young’s instant call for retaliation in the wake of 9/11. “That was stupid. Ever hear of the idea of writing a letter when you first get angry, then putting it away for a minute? My parents taught me that.”
The intricacy of language and the complexity of thought are honed to a sharp point. As for the melodies and arrangements on Songs Cycled, there’s an accessibility that’s rarely witnessed in his catalog.
“It’s funny you say that,” says Parks. “It has to do with economy, certainly. And yet, there is a standard prejudice amongst pop critics that my work has always been too complex. Now I say, ‘In comparison to what?’ If you compare it what I listen to and adore, my stuff is pretty direct and simple. I’m far less complicated than early Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman or even Arnold Schoenberg, whose works I sang when I was 12. Then again, yes, compared to Arlo Guthrie, I’m complex.”
When I tell him that could be his epitaph—“less complex than Arnold Schoenberg, more complex than Arlo Guthrie”—Parks lets out a hearty laugh. He’s also quick to talk about the difficulties in releasing music at 70.
“You know, I went for 10 years hoping I’d get a call, someone begging to hear another record from me, which didn’t happen.” (He credits Bella Union with “validating” him by releasing Songs Cycled). “So many of my peers have been shunted aside at the peak of their powers. Like them, I have lots of songs in me. All I do, morning noon and night, is be engaged in music. It would be a kick to do this again.”