In his early days Graham Parker shuffled like the rest of us, digging ditches, picking tomatoes, collecting money from pinball machines, working in a bakery, a glove factory, a petrol station, and unloading frozen foods. There may even have been a brief stint as a latex salesman at Vandelay Industries. Parker is certainly no slouch; his total studio album count (including albums recorded with his band the Rumour) is something like 23, plus 20 live albums and 17 compilations. In this context it’s therefore possibly surprising that Mystery Glue is only Graham Parker’s seventh studio album with the Rumour, having disbanded or taken “a very long break” between 1980’s The Up Escalator and 2012’s Three Chords Good. Two years on and they are back, billed as combining (according to Bruce Springsteen) “the best of Van Morrison, Eric Burdon and John Lennon”.
Springsteen’s reference to John Lennon is perhaps the most significant of the three, as Parker’s tone is generally tough and acerbic; Springsteen hits the nail on the head by stating, “Graham’s music was always aggressive sounding because of his voice. He always had that caustic attitude that he balanced with tremendous soul and warmth.” And Mystery Glue does not pull any punches; “My Life In Movieland”, for example, details the harsh reality of the film industry, “Waiting for work that does not appear / The agents avoid me, I’m so last year.” Regardless of the troubled sentiment, films were fundamental to the recent re-launch of the band, with an appearance in Judd Apatow’s enjoyable movie This Is 40 and the Parker-Rumour documentary Don’t Ask Me Questions.
Despite the tendency towards mordant wit, Parker’s bile is not overdone on Mystery Glue, with love songs like “Transit of Venus” and “Wall of Grace” showing a tenderness towards the often generous, mysterious and big-hearted characters. “Going There” is positively optimistic in the hope of new discoveries notwithstanding globalization and worldwide terrorism. Parker’s voice often sounds appropriately weathered and Dylan-esque, but with clean and big production, this is still a thoroughly cheerful record. Even in political uncertainty, “Swing State” comes across like a barely restrained party with its laws “meant to be broken”.
It could reasonably be said that a few of the tracks are reminiscent of Southside Johnny (“Flying Into London” and “Pub Crawl”) or indeed Springsteen himself (“Railroad Spikes”) due to the prominence of high-spirited R&B (the old school rhythm and blues, not the contemporary stuff we hear or turn off from the radio), but mostly Parker projects himself more like a long-lost soul brother to Hunter S. Thompson. And this is the distinctively appealing thing at the heart of Mystery Glue; the attitude is hard-boiled and slightly crazed, but the music is full of good spirit. “Long Shot” contains more than a dose of oblivion, but it still remains buoyant; the universe is about to fall apart, the clown politicians lie and generally fail us, but compared to David Baerwald’s opus Triage, Parker’s strain of doom is a sunny walk in the park.
The beautifully harmonic “Slow News Day” quietly rails at the inane, with cats stuck up trees, snowboarding chipmunks and camels with three humps. “I‘ve Done Bad Things” contemplates what could have happened to Barack Obama “with no future and no hope” if “busted for a spliff”, and ends up making a serious point in favor of decriminalization (“release the downtrodden from their everlasting plight”). The reggae beats of “Fast Crowd” have the narrator “Loaded up / With two bolt cutters a propane generator / Strong enough to bring down a cow,” and electrocuting someone who has double-crossed the gang the narrator has unluckily fallen into. Ultimately both come to a sticky end, but all in all, the glue that holds the album together is something approaching Gonzo pop — witty, zippy and slightly dangerous. Recorded in just six (what must have been phenomenal) days in London, this record is a whole lot of mischievous fun.