Van Dyke Parks
Roman Cho

On "Songs Cycled," acclaimed composer enlists artists Art Spiegelman, Klaus Voorman and others

The artwork inside the booklet for Van Dyke Parks' first solo album in 20 years is as important as the music itself, the songwriter-composer arranger says. With contributions from old friends such as Ed Ruscha and Art Spiegelman, the art provides important imagery to accompany the music that, like Parks' work in the late 1960s and '70s, bottles up folk music and allows it spill out in parlors and cabarets.

Spiegelman, the underground comic legend, contributed illustrations of the songs, "Wall Street" and "Money is King" (pictured, right); Ruscha, known for photographs and word paintings that command millions of dollars, sketched for "Dreaming of Paris."

"I really wanted it to relate to the old-fashioned idea of records developed with a visual image to help create an escape," Parks says of "Songs Cycled," which Bella Union will release July 23. "I hit on all these artists -- a collective effort to make something beautiful. I didn't pay them a dime so I've gotten away with murder."

The artwork is as varied and story-driven as the music, which draws on American folk music forms, Bach, South American dance rhythms and pre-WWII European music and is heavy on strings, choirs, the accordion and historical references.

Pasadena artist Kenton Nelson, whose stylized oils project an idyllic Southern California, did the cover. Klaus Voorman, the bassist who drew the Beatles' "Revolver," turned in a still life of a field from his home in Germany, and Frank Holmes, who painted the "Smile" cover for the Beach Boys, contributed a painting of a sinking ship for "Black Gold," an ominous tale about the transportation of crude oil across oceans. Charles Ray did two life-size sculptures of Parks for "Hold Back Time" (see below).

Van Dyke Parks sculptures, by Charles Ray

For an acrylic painting by Billy Edd Wheeler, Parks recorded Wheeler's 1961 tune "Sassafrass." Parks chose to add the Wheeler song to this collection of originals as it connects with his youth spent in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina and, separately, the music of Spike Jones that he first heard in 1948.

"When I heard Spike Jones' 'Cocktails for Two' and Les Paul's 'How High the Moon' with Mary Ford, that changed my life. Recorded music became my obsession and that's what has led me to where I am today, still inhabiting this world.

"There is nothing accidental to what I have recorded. It is all true to the idea that I'm just focusing on the world I inhabit; I reflect on my own experience."

Parks is 70 and he signed his first recording contract, with Warner Bros., when he was 23. His first album, "Song Cycle," was released a year later, followed by "Discover America" and "Clang of the Yankee Reaper."  His last album for Warners, "Tokyo Rose," was released in 1989.

Beyond his arranging/songwriting work with the likes of Rufus Wainwright, Clara and the Reasons, Joanna Newsom and countless recording artists of the '70s, '80s and '90s, his highest profile recordings of the last 20 years were two collaborations: "Orange Crate Art" with Brian Wilson and "An Invitation" with Inara George.

"It's true," Parks says of his early work, "that I was learning how to make a record and I made every mistake I could possibly make. The funny thing is that each record I've done has had some connecting tissue. I go blindly forward and hope there will be a sense of coherence, that the dots connect, and that was my prayer with this one as well. 

"Songs, to me, are still a challenge. I haven't lost that obsession for the song form and what they can do to bring peace and understanding and change hearts. To me there is nothing like a song. It's the epic form, the mountain I am still climbing to find perfection."