The best thing Graham Parker's done since his 1970s heyday.
And the meek shall inherit the earth from their friends, the scum
I don’t think anyone would ever call Graham Parker meek. His career seems to have been littered with moments that thoroughly disprove that theory. At the very least and kindest, he’s a man who knows his own worth. And, as someone once said, he’s not selling cheap.
Nor should he.
In 1975, back when Beelzebub was a boy, Methusaleh was just a glint in Enoch’s eye, and he was the oldest-looking 24-year-old on the planet, Graham Parker was the leader of one of the two best bands in Britain: Graham Parker and the Rumour. The six albums he released between then and 1979 still stand today as one of the strongest and most convincing bodies of work by any recording artist who isn’t Bob Dylan or Lucinda Williams. My favourite is either Heat Treatment, which Parker himself tends to deprecate, or Live at Marble Arch, but it’s the last of the six, Squeezing Out Sparks, that’s always been considered to be Graham Parker’s best record. Indeed, in 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it the 335th greatest album of all time. Thus rating it slightly better than Bat Out of Hell and Stop Making Sense, and slightly worse than Jagged Little Pill or Exile in Guyville. Aren’t lists brilliant?
Since Squeezing Out Sparks, there’s been a dozen or so further Parker releases. Unfortunately, as he became increasingly determined to become the New Springsteen and conquer America, he seemed to lose his spark. And consequently, I lost interest. In the last few years, however, his releases on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records have been slowly bringing me back into the fold. Following swiftly on from Your Country (2004), Songs of No Consequence (2005), and the live 103 Degrees in June (2006), Don’t Tell Columbus is approximately Graham Parker’s 18th original studio album. There’s also been an album of out-takes, another of demos, and roughly half a gazillion live albums and compilations. And of all of these, Don’t Tell Columbus is easily the best thing Parker’s done since his 1970s heyday.
As well known as he is for resenting fatuous comparisons with Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and—no doubt—Bruce Springsteen, Graham Parker must be happy to be mentioned in the same sentence as Bob Dylan. Why else would he open Don’t Tell Columbus with an all-but-title-track that begins in the purest of Dylan styles, ripples throughout with strong Dylan rhythms and signatures, and lyrically frequently recalls “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”? For all that, “I Discovered America” is still very much a Graham Parker song. One that paints his life as a series of problems that were resolved by his discovery of America.
Parker never became the New Brooooce… he blatantly failed to conquer America. However, he’s been living in Woodstock (or perhaps Olivebridge), New York, since 1990 and Don’t Tell Columbus isn’t even scheduled for a release in the UK, so I guess we can all see where his heart lies these days. Happily, however, he lacks the fervent, apostolic blindness of the convert. Whether attacking the government’s denial of the global warming crisis, protesting against the war in Iraq or torture in Abu Ghraib, criticising people who “vote for the man with the nicest tie”, or lampooning politicians who assume a combination of papal infallibility and the divine right of kings, the 56-year-old Parker has lost little of his young man’s ire. However, time certainly seems to have tempered the bile in his sneer.
The apparent mellowing of Graham Parker has been emphasised by the arrangements on Don’t Tell Columbus. While Mike Gent, singer and guitarist in the Figgs, drums throughout, adds a little supporting six-string action to a couple of numbers, and plays lead on the intriguing “England’s Latest Clown”, Parker himself plays every other instrument (including the kazoo!) and the result is a set of songs built largely around a warm and easy-going acoustic guitar.
The best song on Don’t Tell Columbus is not the epic “The Other Side of the Reservoir”, nor the biting “Stick to the Plan”, the sardonic “Ambiguous”, or even the all-but-title-track. Curiously, it’s “Somebody Saved Me”. Comfortable and relaxed where once he boiled with a righteous white soul fire, Parker’s redemption song is so rich with half-memories of his 1970s masterpieces that I can almost hear the Rumour, horn section and all, preparing to tear the roof off this sucker, even now.
Apparently, in 1976, the big brains that participate in the Village Voice‘s annual Pazz and Jop Fank West ruled that Graham Parker’s Heat Treatment and Howlin’ Wind were the second and fourth best albums of the year respectively. Personally, I don’t think I could’ve put them above The Modern Lovers, Ramones, or Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Live! but hey! aren’t lists brilliant? Because 31 years on, while I know it’s still only March, I haven’t heard anything better than Don’t Tell Columbus yet in 2007.
// Notes from the Road
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