Old Soul /
Graham Parker & the Rumour
I HATE lame reunions, don't you? The Half-Who, the Pink-ish Floyd, the Beach Codgers, the Mercury-free Queen -- we all want them to be as good as they once were, and they hardly ever are. (One notable exception: The Zombies.) As much as we Kinks fans yearn to have the brothers Davies back together, what if they reunited and they -- gasp -- sucked? Better never to know.
Yet I never for a minute doubted that Graham Parker & the Rumour would pull it off. GP has been working at the top of his game for so long, I knew his gift hadn't deserted him. More than that, when I saw most of the band play together a couple of years ago, it was clear that the old fire was totally there. I saw Graham and keyboardist Bob Andrews perform together a couple months later and it was magic. As the old Magic 8-Ball would say, All signs point to yes.
But even I didn't predict just HOW good this reunion would be. And now that Three Chords Good, the reunion album, is out, I'm gobsmacked by its brilliance.
Pick a track, any track -- they're all fantastic. Okay, let's go with this one:
One of the problems with many reunions is that the bands are all trying to act like they're 25 years old again. Screw that! We fans aren't 25 anymore either -- why not acknowledge that? In the interim, Graham Parker has expanded the horizons of his soul-infused rock with country and folk, so slipping into a jazz mode feels incredibly logical. (I would too, if I had Bob Andrews' supple piano to back me up.) And by labeling it "Old Soul" -- as in, the precursor to soul -- it makes perfect sense.
But we're still dealing with GP's deliciously cynical world view. "They said you was an old soul / They say a lot of things," he gruffly confides, still puzzling over a relationship that was doomed from the start. That gap between what "they say" and what we feel to be true -- we'd love to buck it, but we are only human and time and again, we fall for the hype. And even though it doesn't work out, we can't help but be intrigued by what transpires. As he says in verse 2: "You wore a lot of strange masks / and clipped a lot of wings / like venom in a shot glass / like liqueur in a hot flask." Despite the acerbic edge to his voice, the poetic imagery infuses this fraught affair with its own dark glamour. He knew in his heart of hearts that she was no good, but what is life if we take no risks?
Best couplet in the song comes in the bridge: "Why am I left half alive / when you're only half dead?" This is so typical of Graham Parker's lyrical genius: yeah, it refers to the old trope about the glass being half-full or half-empty, but it gives it a fresh twist that invokes vampires, clinical depression, and years of couples therapy. And the way he marries it to the melody -- "half alive" rises as a cry for help, while "half dead" circles down in despair -- well, this is art, folks, and I'm telling you that this phrase has already lodged itself in my personal ledger of Phrases That Sum It All Up. .
He's willing to acknowledge his own willful blindness in the last verse -- "I thought you was a sweet child / I think a lot of things." (I love that rueful inversion of the first verse.) And yet, would he have given up the experience? "You took me on a wild ride / all bumper cars and swings" -- sounds memorable to me. Raise your hand if you've ever had a relationship like this, where the thrills are almost -- but not quite -- worth the emotional torment that was bound to ensue.
And sure, in the end it took its toll -- "You swore that you was high class / But you brought me down so low" -- but he knew it was a gamble. "I knew that love could not last / With an old soul like you."
"Old soul" -- it's a cliche to admire people, especially children, by saying they are old souls. We imagine that old souls are more compassionate, or wiser, than the rest of us. But Graham Parker loves setting cliches on their heads. Really, why are old souls any better? What if the "oldness" they embrace is like medieval brutalism or Renaissance duplicity or Gilded Age callousness?
The world-weariness of that jazz tempo is our key. None of us are punked-up kids anymore; a song like "Don't Get Excited" (from Squeezing Out Sparks) would simply not apply. Rather than trotting out the old sound, Graham Parker & the Rumour have cut a new groove, one that's just as magnetic as the old one.
Mere nostalgia is so irrelevant. This is an album you could love even if you didn't have Howlin' Wind or Heat Treatment on your turntable in the late 1970s. These guys aren't trying to fit themselves back into their old soul shoes -- they've all lived interesting lives and done interesting things in the interim, and they've brought all that to the table. It's almost irrelevant to think of it as a reunion album -- better to simply say they're working together again, better than ever.