"Wrapping Paper" / Graham Parker
I admit I'm a Graham Parker newbie -- at least when it comes to his later music -- so please forgive me if I'm still gobsmacked by Struck By Lightning. I first heard this 1991 album a few days ago, while driving the New York State Thruway, somewhere between Poughkeepsie and Coxsackie. I was alone in the car at the time, which was doubly frustrating because I just had to tell somebody what a masterpiece I was listening to.
I'd like to say that this was the song that finally proved Graham Parker's genius to me; the truth is, I was pretty well convinced before this track. But that doesn't change the fact that it is a glorious song indeed.
Pop music is full of break-up songs, but we have astonishingly few make-up songs -- and hardly any as powerful as this one. A tender rootsy waltz, it's ruefully honest, as the singer 'fesses up to his mistakes: "I've broken your glass / Called someone a dirty name / Made a nuisance of myself / In front of friends." Who here hasn't gone through a trainwreck of a night like that? Notice how he deliberately refrains from the obvious rhyme of "glass" and "ass" -- in fact this song has hardly any rhyming at all, striving instead for plain, unvarnished reality.
But now it's time for reconciliation, and in the chorus he stretches out a hand for forgiveness:
Speak to me girl, speak to me darlingThat just slays me. Though it's a cliche, the truth is that love does mean never having to say you're sorry; they're well past abject apologies or whiny pleading. With all pretense stripped away, they're just a couple, flawed and human, cleaving to each other like the marriage vows say. His imagery stuns me -- I love how it melds the physical and the emotional, for in a real partnership the two are one and the same. And I love how his melody underscores it, swinging coaxingly through that 3/4 tempo, especially the soaring last line -- as he flings his voice into "wrapping paper" it's almost like he's lassoing her heart all over again.
You're not a princess, I'm not prince charming,
Speak with your tongue, use body language,
Stretch your skin like wrapping paper round my heart.
In verse two, he admits he isn't always on his best behavior ("Sometimes I feel the kick has gone / It gets mundane / So I team up with the devil / And make hell"). That restlessness is part of any long term relationship, isn't it? And verse three highlights the domestic baggage, the stuff they pack up as they move from town to town -- stuff that matters very little, when it comes right down to it. (This verse in particular reminded me of the Kinks' heartbreaking song "Property"). But always it circles around to that chorus, to that essential spark between them that makes the whole dance worth it.
The Americana sound of this album was a surprising, and as it turns out revelatory, choice for Graham Parker. The New Wave clangor, the "angry young man" attitude, has been replaced by the plangent whine of a dobro and a wistful cornet solo in the bridge. And along with that acoustic twang I hear a likeness to John Hiatt, yet another songwriter who really gets what grown-up marriage is all about. Struck By Lightning is so much deeper and more lyrical than I ever expected Graham Parker's music could be. No wonder I nearly drove off the highway!