What are we going to do about Graham Parker? More to the point, what is he going to do? Last year the former pubrock king stopped trying to make slick hits and put out The Mona Lisa’s Sister. The record, with its stripped-down R&B, was not only Parker’s best work in ages, it was one of the year’s best releases — yet it still failed to break him to the audience he deserves. Now, in a strange career move, he has released a man-and-guitar live album in the Billy Bragg vein. Live! Alone in America, which contains only three new songs and a lone, obvious cover, seems less a return to roots than a last-ditch demo for the unheeding masses.
First, the good news: Parker’s snarly croon has never been in better shape and is helped by his sing-along nah-nah-nahing and simple yet distinctive guitar strumming. He proves the timelessness of early nuggets like “White Honey” and “Hotel Chambermaid,” from his first two, stellar albums, Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment — which Mercury inexplicably has yet to release on CD. And his rough, unadorned songs are still better than most other people’s full-blown arrangements.
Parker’s dry, scathing wit is still evident and aimed at everyone. “I love America,” he says between songs. “I wake up every day and say, ‘Thank God for America.’ Imagine being a Russian, getting all that misinformation…. I mean, those Russians think that Billy Joel’s a rock & roll singer.” The ensuing new reggae number, “Soul Corruption,” attacks America’s ruling hypocrisy, but the lyrics suffer from unwieldy rhymes and an embarrassing lack of subtlety. Better is “Durban Poison,” about drugs, apartheid and industrial pollution.
The rest of the album reveals a lack of direction; some of Parker’s song choices are plain wrongheaded. Why include acoustic versions of rockers like “Protection” and “Back to Schooldays” with such wonderful ballads in your catalog as “Temporary Beauty” and “Between You and Me”? Why cover a signature song like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” — so soon after recording Cooke’s “Cupid” — when there’s an abundance of soul obscurities to rediscover? And why include a lame discussion of Philadelphia cheese steaks when he can be so wicked and pointed?
The biggest problem with Live! Alone in America is that Parker doesn’t do anything novel with his old material, the way Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello have done: there are no rethinkings, no updatings. For all his brilliance, Parker seems to be having trouble reworking his past and plotting his future, which may be why he finds himself alone.