Coming from the 1970s UK pub-rock scene, Graham Parker had to slip away from the shadows cast by Nick Lowe, the producer of his first album Howlin’ Wind, and the burgeoning legend of Elvis Costello. Adept at sharp lyrics, a wicked wit and a keen sense of how to wed it to visceral rock and roll, Parker fit in comfortably with the crowd but had difficulty standing out. His ballsiest move came when he left original label Mercury for Arista, then famously wrote a song called “Mercury Poisoning.” Now in 2010, Costello is off seeking his muse in country, jazz and his television program. Lowe’s stepped into a maturity of song and sound, far removed from his debut Jesus of Cool. This leaves Parker with a golden opportunity to stand out in his signature (albeit age-tempered) style, and on Imaginary Television, he does.
Right from the opening of the first track, “Weather Report,” you know this is going to be more in line with expectations — Parker’s gruff voice surprisingly intact and the melody firmly fixed in the pop-rock milieu. All of this came as a comfort, for as much as I enjoy the directions taken by the artists I previously mentioned, I also slide into the camp that wonders why they don’t do more of what they do well. Parker has always been on the fringes, filling albums with a lot of good ideas and a handful of questionable ones, but thankfully the only glaring misstep on Imaginary Television is the ill-advised riff off the Leslie Gore golden oldie “It’s My Party.” “It’s My Party (But I Won’t Cry)” is stuck in easy, somewhat predictable rhymes and the occasional eye-rolling verse, but it’s relatively brief and surrounded by stronger material.
“Broken Skin,” to my surprise, may become one of my all-time Parker favorites. It’s earnest but it’s easy on the ears; a lovely, jangly acoustic ballad that commands you to sing along. “More Questions Than Answers” dares to take into account that the singer is not the angry young know-it-all he used to be, tied to a reggae bounce and a desire not to grind deep meanings in too hard. The closing “1st Responder” is a silly love song, but it’s fun so you don’t really mind that it is a bit fluffy. If there is a unifying theme to the album, it is the bridge between a glimpse of Parker’s past without trying to foolishly wallow in it, understanding that rather than coming off as a young lout full of piss and vinegar, he has things to say from his current vantage point. He just chooses to act his age without needing to sound like it. It isn’t a perfect album, nor is it the type of disc that triggers obsessive listening, but Imaginary Television reminds the listener why Graham Parker was lumped into the company he kept and doesn’t make you wish the new material had been done any other way.