Graham Parker couldn't have a good time if his career depended on it. His most memorable songs are powered by rage at something he can't get, whether it's answers to life-and-death questions or an easy lay. When Parker's frustrated, he plays the existential kid at the candy-store window, eloquently bellowing at the goodies just beyond his reach.
But when it looks like he's actually going to get his hands on those goodies — as it did after his masterpiece, 1979's Squeezing Out Sparks, set up an American audience for a followup — Parker's eloquence deserts him. The Up Escalator would have established him in the same league as his fellow post-pub-rocker, Elvis Costello (whose debut followed Parker's by a year), if it'd even come close to Squeezing Out Sparks. Instead, The Up Escalator was pallid and unconvincing, as if Parker were so sure that stardom would steal his soul he pretended it was already gone. Graham Parker had plenty to say as an underdog, but he couldn't recognize himself as a celebrity.
The problem is that, from a major-label viewpoint, there's no place left for an angry underdog. Shrinking radio playlists mean that new rock has to fit in with superstar standbys and or an AOR sound: full-toned, midtempo tunes that exude a certain aristocratic ease, like REO Speedwagon's "Keep On Loving You." (In 1981, even the Rolling Stones cleaned up their mixes.) Radio listeners expect a smooth escape, not a desperate snarl, and while Parker's rock & roll and reggae traditionalism isn't as threatening to the ear as punk, his aggrieved tone is more than a little uncool. With AOR expert Jimmy Iovine producing The Up Escalator, Parker ended up railing against himself for becoming numb and stupefied — an unsatisfactory solution for all concerned.
Parker's an underdog again on Another Grey Area, and he clearly feels at home. Coproducer Jack Douglas achieves a clean sound that's not as sanitized as Iovine's, and he brings out the barrelhouse in the band, though he does add at least one girlie chorus too many. More important, Graham Parker has found an honest way to sing such lines as "I'm not crying for attention I'm screaming to be heard Everybody's listening but you." He's plugged back into his rage, but instead of shaking his fist at God and Truth, he's channeled his anger into the one socially acceptable (and airplayable) outlet: frustrated love. With a few "baby"s in the right places, "Crying for Attention" turns into a crazed come on, while "No More Excuses" ("Every step is another chance Every moment slips through our hands") is a near-suicidal, paranoid pledge of fidelity. Intentionally or not, Parker's thought processes and their underlying desperation become clear in "Can't Waste a Minute," a love song that seems less peculiar if it's taken as a policy statement aimed at radio programmers:
I was playing with words
No one could understand a thing
They'd never get the drift of it
Waste my time on the absurd
Static that just seemed to cling
I just got rid of it
Non I can't waste a minute
Can't spend a minute here
Can't waste a minute of your timeless love.
In the last line, Parker stretches out "time," then pauses, making "-less love" almost a postscript. And in the bridge, the artist declares, "I haven't got that much time And what I've got isn't mine Anymore." admitting that, on some level, he's accepted commercial restrictions.
Up to a point, that is, Graham Parker's got a stake in alienation, and, unlike Elvis Costello, he can't simply be snide or sarcastic — as he says, "I'd rather burn than singe." So he winds up casting even full-fledged love songs in blunt, negative terms like "It's All Worth Nothing Alone." "You Hit the Spot," as affectionate as Parker gets, is set to a minor-key march with a snaky, foreboding guitar hook. He praises a lover almost grudgingly: "When you're near, I don't feel alone." No wonder she receives a marriage proposal as brusque as "You wear the ring I wear the monkey suit." Still, Parker's defiance provides tense, telling lyrics, which make his love songs infinitely preferable to most of today's amorous platitudes. Better weird than insipid, any time.
Parker the singer gets his teeth into the new compositions, perhaps because he figures he's already fulfilled minimum AOR requirements. Once in a while, an arrangement shouts its derivativeness (e.g., "No More Excuses" from Steely Dan's "Haitian Divorce," "Fear Not" as an homage to Dire Straits), but the kind of punch Douglas gets from the studio band is a fair trade-off, and every number has a useful hook or two. Parker could come across without them, of course, and it'd be fascinating to hear him crude and unbridled on an independent label that'd be overjoyed with six-figure sales. However, if Graham Parker can live with the compromising gambits of Another Grey Area — knowing they represent "Temporary Beauty," as the album's opener has it — so can we.