Graham Parker’s been putting out rock albums for over thirty years – forgive him if he’s run out of teenage love songs. But Parker’s trademark qualities are strong as ever: the slouchy rhythms, the trenchant satire, the catchy refrains. So what if his singing voice has devolved over the years into a Dylan-esque rasp? It’s all the better to project his edgy wit.
And wit is very much the point of Parker’s newest release, Imaginary Television. Press releases claim the germ of this concept album was a TV theme Parker wrote. Though the song didn’t make the final cut, the exercise got Parker's juices flowing — inspiring an entire album of songs that could have been TV themes, if these shows had ever existed.
Knowing Graham Parker, I suspect he’s having us on. Like many a transplant (though English, Parker now lives in America), he has a keen ear for pop culture’s absurdities. The story lines detailed in the liner notes are ludicrous, but don’t get distracted by that gimmick – the album’s songs more than stand on their own merits.
Fictional shows like “Weather Report” or the plangent “Broken Skin” (sounds like a medical drama, no?) provide a jumping-off point for Parker’s musings on the assaults of modern life (“Your broken skin’s not black or blue, / But damaged just the same”). Track after track, Parker's musical versatility keeps mixing things up, as if channel surfing. The rootsy twang of “Not Where You Think You Are” paints a hallucinatory scenario of dislocation. The laidback, rambling tune “Head On Straight” claims to be about fresh starts, but it’s just as much about the botched past.
One thing a TV series needs is an irresistible hook, and Parker’s always been a supreme hookmeister. But don’t be seduced by his upbeat pop melodies – Parker adds a dark twist every time. One of my favorite cuts, “Always Greener,” mingles satire and sympathy in portraying a suburban couple in midlife crisis – the tempo may rock, but we sense the heartbreak ahead. The reggae groove of “See Things My Way” belies the schizophrenic yin and yang of any long-term relationship.
Snappy as it sounds, “It’s My Party (But I Won’t Cry)” – yes, a Lesley Gore reference! – is really a curmudgeon’s anthem. “Bring Me A Heart Again" casts a jaded worldview as a cheery tap dance (dig the Wizard of Oz references — “I've got some courage and I've got a brain / Strong man though I may be / But long ago I felt my empathy wane / Bring me a heart again").
The album winds up with "First Responder," where he promises his teenage son that if he ever gets in trouble, ol' dad will come to the rescue. You know the sit-com formula – every week the son will somehow get in over his head. Yet in the refrain, Parker jauntily arrives: "I'll turn up in a hybrid or a Hummer or a Honda, / I'll be your first responder / A wicked Maserati, a Kia or Hyunda / I'll be your first responder." Ah, the comic value of a cheesy rhyme!
So yes, read the liner notes and have a giggle – but then throw them away and let the songs breathe on their own. Beneath the cleverness lies a surprising well of wisdom, of hard-won life lessons, perhaps even a gleam of autobiography (it can't be coincidence that so many of these characters feel restless, dissatisfied, out of sync with modern life). And when you least expect it, there’ll be a wistful moment – like in “Always Greener”: “There’s something lacking in his life / But he can’t define it / Three kids, two cars, a house, a wife / Guess that defines it.”
It definitely suggests that Graham Parker hasn’t been living in a rock-star bubble for the last 30 years. He’s been out there living a life much like ours — just with a cooler day job.