Once upon a time, Graham Parker was pub rock's rawest nerve and, along with Elvis Costello, New Wave's most literate malcontent. Nowadays, he's a happily married man who can boast of steady nerves, having put emotional traumas behind him. The question is, What does an angry young man sing about when he's no longer angry? While not a definitive answer, his ninth album is an encouraging step.
Steady Nerves is Parker's most engaging work since Squeezing Out Sparks, his uncontested high-water mark. Instead of the whitewashing he has gotten lately from slick, market-oriented producers, who tried to contain his yearning wail inside a tidy bowl of studio niceties, the production by Parker and William Wittman lends personality and sparkle to the eleven songs on Steady Nerves. The record offers a smorgasbord of varied tastes and textures, from the fast-strumming modern pop of "Take Everything" to the intimate, atmospheric balladry of "Wake Up (Next to You)."
Lyrically, Parker is less obsessive. He sings affirmatively of love ("Mighty Rivers"), and his lone stab at documenting inner turmoil, "Lunatic Fringe," rings false: he's simply too sane to pull it off anymore. When Parker does get upset, it's about things far removed from his experience — for instance, the Westernization of Venezuelan tribesmen by an American fundamentalist group, which is the subject of "Break Them Down." Or, moving from an obscure target to a hopelessly obvious one, there is his paean to "Canned Laughter," a topic too banal to care about.
Longtime Parker fans may be put off by this lighter touch. "Canned Laughter," as silly as it is, sounds like Dylan's "Masters of War" compared with "Locked in Green," a song about the game of snooker set to a nock-Dixieland arrangement. And Parker's newly anointed band, the Shot, doesn't have the aim or impact of the Rumour, his original backup group. He is still essentially conservative in the studio, as he has been since 1982's Another Grey Area, and he and his musicians seem locked into arrangements that leave little room for spontaneity or fervor.
But the arrangements themselves, however desiccated in their execution, are more inventive than they've been in quite a while, and Parker's even-tempered reflectiveness offers subtler pleasures and a new angle on the man. In the ongoing dialectic between contentment and contempt, Graham Parker is now singing from greener pastures, but you can still hear him trying to come up with fresh challenges.