There aren’t many singer-song-writers who hit their creative stride fifteen years into their career, but then again there aren’t many singer-songwriters like Graham Parker. And as his exquisite new album, Struck by Lightning, makes utterly clear, we sure could use a few more just like him.
Howlin’ Wind — Parker’s 1976 debut — introduced a young white soul man in the Van Morrison mode, only less mystical and more pissed off. Parker’s backing band, the Rumour, complemented his passionate songs perfectly, sounding like a hard-rocking British version of the Band. Parker became something of a New Wave archetype, influencing the early work of both Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, among others.
In 1979, Parker seemed to make a commercial and artistic breakthrough with the riveting Squeezing Out Sparks. But during the Eighties, Parker split with the Rumour, ran through a few record companies and made a series of uneven albums that saw him swamped by big-name producers and weak material. He rallied strongly in 1988 with The Mona Lisa’s Sister, a stripped-down effort that he coproduced with former Rumour guitarist Brinsley Schwarz.
Now, two albums later, Parker has brought everything full cycle with Struck by Lightning. The album, which Parker produced himself, has a warm, rootsy sound that’s at least as Band-like as Howlin’ Wind — Garth Hudson even contributes some keyboard work. Recorded in and around Woodstock, New York — where Parker and his family now live — Struck by Lightning features a number of songs, like “The Kid With the Butterfly Net” and “Strong Winds,” that seem to be informed by his domestic life. “The Sun Is Gonna Shine Again” is downright inspirational, as if Parker had written his own version of the Impressions’ “People Get Ready.” And with the upbeat “A Brand New Book,” Parker even manages the neat trick of writing a catchy pop tune about putting away childish things and writing music for adults.
Best of all are “Wrapping Paper,” a potent come-on, and “And It Shook Me,” a more existential look at love: “Will you hold on and hope our grip don’t fail/Sometimes lovers hammer in their own coffin nails/I just read how universes start/Continually they blow apart/And it shook me and I’m still shaking now.” Elsewhere, Parker still sounds like an angry young man, only now that he’s not so young his work has taken on an added edge and new-found depth. Rock music with this degree of thoughtfulness and maturity may be in danger of becoming a lost art, but Struck by Lightning proves that Parker is a master of it, a master at the peak of his powers.