20
Aug 00

VAN DYKE PARKS – Song Cycle

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VAN DYKE PARKS – Song Cycle

I’d heard so much about this album that I was actually nervous about hearing it, some years after it acquired a personal status as a kind of masterpiece of the mind. And the thing that immediately strikes me about it is how unfinished and incomplete it sounds compared to Discover America. They were clearly created at different stages in VDP’s artistic evolution – in ’68 he was expressing exactly how he felt, and putting it into shape was no priority. In ’72, everything was thrown into shape, every moment was indescribably affecting, there were no lengthy indulgences in between.

It certainly has weak links in its sprawl – both instalments of “Laurel Canyon Boulevard” are unnecessary fillers, and his version of Donovan’s “Colours” (titled, of course, “Donovan’s Colours”, an early example of the man’s charmingly outmoded reverence-without-forlock-tugging for those he appopriates, as though Donovan owned the song and had to receive a formal tribute) doesn’t come off as well as he must have hoped. But I think Tom was underrating it when he said in chat that it has “none of the warmth” of its successor … for sheer charm, the first and last 25 seconds of “The All Golden” outstrip virtually anything else he’s ever recorded, but the difference is that, on “Discover America”, *the whole song* would have that quality, and the magic of the harp sequences, fading out into that fuzzy recording of “Nearer My God To Thee”, would be sustained throughout the song, rather than lost in a rather unsubtle pastiche-production.

What is it about Gayle Levant’s harp sections on this record? They elevate the first minute of “Public Domain” to greatness, evoking by their very presence the kind of relationship a strong society has with its past, affectionate without drowning in reverence. Indeed it’s always elements and sections of songs that move me here, not the entire songs themselves (the orchestral flourishes that drive “The Attic” are better than the song itself, clearly). Even the album’s centrepiece / statement-of-intent – “For The People” – is constructed from its components rather than as a complete song; the “strike up the band” gospel chorus anticipating “Ode To Tobago”, its slow sub-1940s orchestral builds leading up to “G-Man Hoover”. Nevertheless, the trick he turned in every moment of “Discover America”, the evocation of joyous sentimentality without a hint of cloying or reductionist nostalgia, is already coming through here.

Not a masterpiece. A succession of sketches for songs, slightly incoherent ideas thrown together, one man’s fixations and obsessions with the interrelations of history thrown together, without which “Discover America” could never have been made. It was necessary, I think, for VDP to let his imperfections show before imperceptibly ironing them out.

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