Ever since he brought British soul punk to songwriting in 1976, Graham Parker has been working on the difficult second act of his career. Lacking Elvis Costello's ingenuity or Joe Jackson's ambition, the more simply talented Parker has never reinvented his music persona: While various producers and musicians have adjusted the tone of his recordings, Parker has remained consistent, rarely venturing beyond the boundaries of R&B-rooted rock & roll.
Human Soul, following the arid Mona Lisa's Sister and the less-than-compelling Live! Alone in America, is an invigorating jolt — substantial and catchy songs, richly realized. Parker reaches an intensity level rare in his recent work: longtime sidemen, including guitarist Brinsley Schwarz and erstwhile Attractions Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas provide enthusiastic backing.
In a nod to the pre-CD era, Human Soul is divided into distinct halves. Displaying the mature outlook of an urbane artist approaching forty, the Real Side contains Parker's tough romanticism — reassuring on "My Love's Strong," brassily suggestive on "Call Me Your Doctor," wistful on "Big Man on Paper" and warmly nostalgic on the ska beat "Soultime."
Parker takes an adventurous turn on the harder-rocking Surreal Side, which purports to be a conceptual suite (the thematic link being current affairs) of eight tracks — including two song fragments and a truncated reprise — that run roughly into one another. With lyrics indirect if hardly surreal, Parker shares his pungent views on imperialism ("Slash and Burn"), suburban culture ("Daddy's a Postman"), happy-face optimism ("Evervthing Goes") and the source of AIDS (not "Green Monkeys"). He also revisits a favorite subject — his mistreatment by the music business — for the sharply ironic "I Was Wrong."
Parker's unflagging commitment to his passions continues to yield powerfully provocative music, loaded with heart and soul. Twelve albums in, he's still pourin' it all out.