In many ways, Van Dyke Parks’s first solo studio album in 25 years feels directly connected to his 1968 debut Song Cycle; the near-identical titles, of course, encourage this comparison. There are collage-style song forms and fast-picked balalaikas. Parks even includes a revamp of “The All Golden.” It’s easy to see Songs Cycled as a “comeback” outing: Parks embracing the daredevil spirit of his early output at a time when critics and fans appreciate it more than ever.
After a few listens, however, it becomes clear that the precedents for these songs actually come from throughout his career. “Black Gold,” a comment on the Prestige oil spill, is a South Pacific-esque exercise in exoticism that recalls Tokyo Rose. “Sassafrass” (more Oklahoma!) would sound at home on Jump! The album’s instrumental compositions vacillate between Americana-infused neo-modernism and high kitsch, evoking his idiosyncratic soundtrack and arranging work.
Parks also draws from his 1970s output, covering Growling Tiger’s calypso hit “Money is King,” and including a recording of the Esso Steel Band performing his arrangement of Saint-Saens’ “Aquarium.” This piece is a strange but fitting centerpiece, demonstrating both Parks’ interest in synthesizing folk and art music idioms, and in the exchange between continental and American culture. It raises one of the central questions of his oeuvre: What is America’s current place in the world, and how did we arrive at this point? This is explored further in songs like “Dreaming of Paris” and “Wall Street,” moments where Parks perfectly straddles the line between pointed satire and empathetic character study.
On Songs Cycled, Parks revisits past ideas inventively and without retreading old ground. The album serves as an excellent entry point into Parks’s catalogue, and as a diverse offering that will more-than-satisfy longtime fans.