"Always Greener" / Graham Parker
As promised. This new Graham Parker CD, Imaginary Television, is such a sneaky little surprise. The sound is so bright and bouncy, so incontrovertibly POP, that it's easy to pass it off as a lightweight effort by an aging rocker trying to stay relevant. But oh, that would be missing the point.
According to the advance press, the germ of this album was a theme song that Parker wrote for a projected TV show. Though the song was never used, the effort set Parker's juices flowing. He wound up writing an entire album of songs that could have been used as TV theme songs, if those shows had ever existed. Snappy little numbers, most of them -- as TV theme songs tend to be -- but as set-ups for the shows, they turn out to be dark and slightly twisted. Yesssss -- the kind of shows I wish TV had more of.
Currently this is my favorite track on the album: "Always Greener." The sound so perfectly evokes your classic perky TV theme melody, it's a kick when you realize that its characters are deep in mid-midlife crisis, and probably heading for splitsville. (Add this to that Dial D for Divorce playlist, along with the Talking Heads' "Once In a Lifetime," Nick Lowe's "People Change," and Dr. Feelgood's "Don't Wait Up.") The tune promises zany, madcap adventures week after week, but then you listen to the words and -- ouch.
One of the things I loved most about the Rumour's 1979 album Squeezing Out Sparks -- to my mind still one of the finest albums of that New Wave era -- was Parker's ability to see both sides of an emotional crisis. Here too, he sympathetically portrays these people and their frustration, their fear that life has passed them by. ("Three kids, two cars, a wife / I guess that defines him . . . ") Yet he doesn't let them off the hook. He's not judging them exactly, but he isn't buying their excuses either.
Listen to that bridge, where he slips into metaphor: "I know there's cherries and a pear / So I will pull that handle / Pull that handle, pull that handle, pull that handle . . ." (as the tempo slows meaningfully, like the slot machine's wheels whirring to a stop). Should they be gambling with their lives like this? Is life only a game of chance? Somehow I don't think Graham Parker wants us to pull that handle -- but how subtly he casts his aspersions.
Earworm? Yes indeedy -- I found myself irresistibly chirping along with the refrain, "The grass is always greener / The grass is always greener / Always greener / Always greener." I swear, I even did that thing where you tip your head gaily from side to side. There's a real black comedy to this ironic juxtaposition. The very carelessness of that tune and tempo makes a pretty snarky statement about how careless we've become with our commitments -- and yes, we're all complicit, the minute we start singing along.
I don't remember Graham Parker being this wickedly funny back in the old days with Graham Parker and the Rumour -- but hey, I suspect anybody who used to hang out with the Nick Lowe-Stiff crowd had to have a great sense of humor. Granted, the great bluesy rasp in Parker's voice -- and oh, what a voice it was -- has degenerated into a sort of mellow but crochety wheeze these days. But with songwriting this sharp, it's a fair trade-off.