The Mona Lisa's Sister, Graham Parker's most compelling record in nearly a decade, is a raw meditation on desire and disappointment from a man who has felt — and feels — with a fierce intensity. In song after song, Parker examines how media images conspire with our own fantasies to create insatiable needs — and to drain satisfaction from any pleasure that is merely human scale. The wonderful paradox is that even as Parker has fashioned an album whose tough resignation is a razor's edge removed from despair, he finally manages to meet the torturous standard of his own ambitions.
By now, everyone who cares knows how Graham Parker and his backing band, the Rumour, became critics' darlings in 1976 by blending R&B soulfulness and punk insurgency on their first two albums, Howlin' Wind and Heat Treatment. As Parker got mired in battles with his record company — "I'm the best-kept secret in the West," he later complained on the aptly titled "Mercury Poisoning" — Elvis Costello outflanked him and quickly assumed the role Parker had vacated, that of the pun-loving angry young man.
When the powerful 1979 album Squeezing Out Sparks failed to win him the audience he deserved, Parker sank into creative confusion. The albums kept coming — The Up Escalator (1980) and, after the Rumour split up, Another Grey Area (1982), The Real Macaw (1983) and Steady Nerves (1985) — but no combination of producer and players seemed able to unlock Parker's heart.
Consequently, The Mona Lisa's Sister has all the fervency of a last-ditch effort. It is a record that, like John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love, is driven by a purpose that is as much personal as it is artistic. Clearly, Parker is out to prove something to himself as well as to say something to the world.
To ensure that he'd stand or fall on his own efforts, Parker seized control of all aspects of The Mona Lisa's Sister. He coproduced the album with Brinsley Schwarz, one of the Rumour's original guitarists; Andrew Bodnar, also from the Rumour, plays bass. When Atlantic, Parker's label, began to suggest changes, Parker bolted to RCA and made the company promise to release the album his way.
That was quite a demand. Unlike Parker's recent albums, this record is stripped to the bone, and the lack of fussiness underscores its serious intent. Parker's acoustic guitar provides the primary instrumentation, giving the record a folkie, intimate feel. Schwarz on electric guitar, Bodnar on bass, James Hallawell on keyboards and Terry Williams on drums play virtually all the rest of the music, and they perform with a sensitivity to nuance and a respect for Parker's songs indicative of a band, not a gathering of studio professionals.
Parker's furious struggle with self-doubt provides the drama at the heart of The Mona Lisa's Sister. The opening track, "Don't Let It Break You Down," starts out sweetly as a message of encouragement in the face of the world's "everyday evil." But when Parker tears into his critics ("They have the nerve to/Rip up a man's life/In a paragraph or two"), bemoans the elusiveness of success ("You'll see a winning post/In the distance/That you'll never reach") and brays the song's title with gathering urgency, he could be singing into a mirror. The anger he summons on that track finds expression again on the simmering single "Get Started Start a Fire," where he tells the tale of three victims, including Marilyn Monroe, and recommends the purifying power of revenge over passive suffering.
The ballad "I'm Just Your Man" — a lovely call for levelheaded romance — is haunted by a touching sense of regret. Even as Parker tells his lover, "I'm not a page in history.... I'm not a hero.... I'm not a burning comet that/Fell out of the sky," his very insistence on being seen in human terms is partly fueled by his own disappointed aspirations to greatness. For his lover to see him as more than what he is would stir ambitions that have been uncomfortably laid to rest — and that might prove too painful to arouse. In a strange way, the song is as much an apology as it is an eloquently direct declaration of love.
Given this rich emotional density — in which love, identity and achievement are inextricably bound, and sometimes indistinguishable — it's fitting that the album's most gripping moment is a song titled simply "Success." The tune begins quietly, with Parker intoning the opening verse: "The dreams and hopes of men/Are powered by addiction/And who am I to say that/This is an affliction/When everybody gets/Suckered in and lives their/Lives like fiction/Writing their own story/Of success."
The bitterness heightens as Parker chants the song's title over and over, frequently pronouncing it "suck-cess," his voice seething with a lacerating contempt. But at times the repetition edges close to invocation, as Parker's dashed hopes lace his vocal with an unmistakable longing for the rush success inevitably brings to those who, like him, are addicted to it.
"Success" is followed by "I Don't Know," where a Buddy Holly lilt and catchy "dum-dum-da-dum-dum" background vocals counterpoint lyrics that abandon the possibility of self-knowledge. "I don't know why it's not enough/To feel moments of mighty love," Parker sings. "I can't know why my heart is chilled." The song's effect is a kind of stunned cheerfulness.
Yet after such staggering journeys through a jungle of contradictory emotions, Parker ends the album on a surprising note. Despite the insufficiency of those "moments of mighty love," Parker hauls out Sam Cooke's "Cupid" for the closer — as unambivalent a prayer for undying romantic love as American vernacular music has produced. Parker's rigorously faithful, deeply felt reading of the song is not ironic in the least — and it suggests the necessity of maintaining ideals, however troubling and difficult that might prove to be.
That sentiment echoes "Fool's Gold," Heat Treatment's closing number, which Parker alludes to on this record when he sings, "There must be gold where fools are," in "Blue Highways." In the earlier song, Parker passionately vowed to "keep on searching for that fool's gold" — vehement conviction in quest of ambiguous goals being about as characteristic a Graham Parker stance as you could imagine. But on The Mona Lisa's Sister, Parker, like an alchemist, has transformed his fool's gold into the quintessential real thing — and fully justified his search.