Graham Parker’s reputation as a curmudgeonly character of distinction is well-established given a 40-year legacy that still looms large in the annals of the post-punk era. However unlike Elvis Costello, who has clearly mellowed with age, Parker never swerved from that initial stance. It’s not that nostalgia has’t served him well however; his 2011 reunion with his ace backing band the Rumour proved then that time hadn’t diminished his ferocity.
That said, Parker’s latest, Cloud Symbols, does suggest that his cast iron facade may be dissolving a bit. Opening track “Girl In Need” is positively exuberant, belying any trace of urgency with his giddy delivery. Likewise, “Ancient Past,” “Bathtub Gin” and “Every Saturday Nite” breeze along with a sway and sashay to the accompaniment of a brassy backing band, a tack that sounds as euphoric as a proverbial waltz in the park.
Parker partisans may find they have reason to worry that their hero’s veracity has been tempered by age. If that’s a source of satisfaction, then indeed they may have cause for concern. “Brushes” and “Nothin From You” up the energy level but they’re perky to the point of simply sounding carefree. “I’m dreaming, yes I’m dreaming,” he intones on the sashaying “Dreamin’,” an irrepressible love song that finds the once petulant Parker turning his Cloud Symbols into a kind of Cloud Nine or similar environs.
By this point in the proceedings it’s evident that the once angry young man who railed against his former record label in that infamous invective “Mercury Poisoning” has given way to a more mature artist who’s now quietly content. The album’s two most prominent ballads, “Is The Sun Out Anywhere” and “Maida Hill,” are gilded with wistful reflection, all idyllic, care-free innocence.
Cloud Symbols isn’t a bad record, not by a long shot. An ace backing band, some of whom are old alumni—guitarist Martin Belmont, keyboard player Geraint Watkins, bassist Simon Edwards, drummer Roy Dodds and the Rumour Brass, the latter working with Parker for the first time in years—are content to do their boss’ bidding. The overall effect does feel like a pulled punch, an attempt to land some late-period commercial success. The only hint of his trademark sneer and cynicism comes near the set’s conclusion with “What Happens When Her Beauty Fades,” an ode to a gold digger who’s only out to milk her men for their money. Ironically though, it’s followed by the singalong sappiness of “Love Comes,” a further example of his unhinged optimism.
The album feels like a strange reaction to our troubled times, misplaced optimism rubbing uncomfortably against our current straing ubiquitous outrage. It’s not a bad thing to hear Parker sound so nestled into a comfy chair with all his needs met, but it wouldn’t hurt to have him in the trenches with us.
Hear Graham Parker live at Park West in 1982 below: