While it can be traced back to a number of specific historic styles, the music of Van Dyke Parks is highly distinctive and, on Songs Cycled, is used in such a variety of moods and flavors that it is in no danger of sounding commonplace. The signature clip-clop rhythm of his florid compositions coupled with his ragged voice, which has a hint of musical theater about it, gives these songs an inescapable degree of cinema-grade, all-American nostalgia.
It sounds idyllic enough, but despite the initial gloss of the record, Parks is quite concerned with disasters. “Black Gold,” with piano and cello parts like choppy waves, tells the story of an oil spill, an “Agony of ebony and steel,” followed immediately by an eerie rendition of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Aquarium” on dark, glistening steel drums. From the sea, he moves to the city, first with the island breeze and class conflict of “Money Is King” and then with the crashing piano of “Wall Street,” a response to 9/11. It quickly changes from a jaunty Broadway feel to a solemn remembrance of ash and blood falling like confetti. There is always a strong thread of theatricality running through it. However, the ornate radiance of the music does not in any way trivialize the subject matter. Rather, it enhances it by bringing it into the album’s world.
To balance it all out, there are plenty of lighter notes, pastoral landscapes and dreamy flourishes. There are such delights as “The Parting Hand,” a traditional Sacred Harp hymn that turns into a lush orchestral voyage, and the lusty “Sassafras,” a bouncy Western tempered with fittingly whimsical strings and bright vocals that hop up and down through the rich instrumentation. There are no moments that are truly lacking, no loose ends in need of tying. Songs Cycled is meticulously arranged, vividly realized, and absolutely glowing with life.