She walks past but you can’t form a whistle,” Graham Parker sings on “Platinum Blonde,” one of thirteen tracks on Burning Questions. “Even her lips look artificial/You wanna follow her but you can’t swallow her act.” Only a handful of contemporary artists — Elvis Costello, for one — could write a lyric so briskly cynical and yet so pierced by implicit yearning.
Like Costello, Parker is one of the singer-songwriters who, drawing on the legacies of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, carried the rock troubadour into the punk era. That era is long gone, of course, and Parker takes care to embellish Burning Questions with signs of the times. Topical references range from the humorous — “I’ve seen the future of rock, and it sucks,” from “Love Is a Burning Question” — to the sobering: “Here It Comes Again” takes aim at mandatory drug testing, fundamentalist preachers and politicians who seek to censor art “unless it falls to the right of the fence.” Musically, however, Questions finds Parker unabashed about letting his late-Seventies roots show. Tracks like “Too Many Knots to Untangle” and “Just Like Joe Meek’s Blues” recall the lean, graceful production that distinguished some of that period’s most memorable pop singles; “Yesterday’s Cloud” and the catchy “Platinum Blonde” are equally lithe but more driving, evoking the breathless energy that helped put Parker on the map.
Elsewhere, Parker indulges in more gentle reflection. “Mr. Tender is something I’m not,” he insists on “Mr. Tender,” but he protests too much. Questions offers further proof of the singer’s softer side, from the bittersweet “Long Stem Rose,” with its elegiac strings, to “Oasis,” a rhapsodic meditation on the healing power of love.
One of the most poignant moments on Burning Questions, though, comes in its final song, “Worthy of Your Love.” “If I could make up all the rules,” Parker sings, “I would not carry out the work of fools/ Or use deception and fear as tools/And I’d be worthy of your love.” The object of Mr. Tender’s affections should be so worthy herself.