So, More Mr. Nice guy

Graham Parker's well into middle age, but since his breakthrough album Squeezing Out Sparksin 1979, he's been stuck with the angry-young-man tag the music press deploys with a profligacy that embraces everyone from Elvis Costello to Fred Durst. His biting sarcasm and brutal honesty is undeniable in songs about bad women (“Local Girls,” “Women in Charge”), political hypocrisy (“Soul Corruption”), a former record label (“Mercury Poisoning”) and, well, just about everything else you can think of. A 1996 tribute album was fittingly titled Piss and Vinegar: The Songs of Graham Parker.

But anyone who's been paying attention knows the terse Parker is more than a one-man wrecking crew. From his brilliant debut, Howlin' Wind, in 1976, his body of work has been balanced by more penetrating takes on the human soul—hiding behind the omnipresent sunglasses is quite a sensitive bloke with the same emotional vulnerabilities as you and me. Gems such as “Between You and Me,” “Back Door Love,” “You Can't Take Love for Granted” and “Temporary Beauty” tackle love, longing and rejection with little room for Hallmark sentimentalities. It's hard to imagine a more honest, open wound than the one revealed in these lines from “Passion Is No Ordinary Word”: “I pretend to touch you/And you pretend to feel.”

Parker, 53, has kept making new albums and touring, though much of his '90s work was surprisingly pedestrian. His new Your Country, though—his first for Chicago-based Bloodshot, which must be his eleventy zillionth label—marks a significant return to form, a pleasantly surprising, mostly acoustic, alterna-country/roots rock disc. Think of a fantasy blend of John Hiatt, Bob Dylan and Robert Earl Keen, with Lucinda Williams adding a real-life female touch singing on the break-up tune “Cruel Lips.” The sound is certainly twangy enough (courtesy of Ben Peeler's lap steel guitar), but it doesn't overshadow the tasty accordion, harmonica and acoustic-guitar flourishes that color the mix.

This is different terrain for Parker, though it's anything but forced or contrived. He's done solo acoustic shows for years, and many of his older songs would fit comfortably on this new album. Plus, with his roots reaching deep into classic R&B, soul, and blues, country music isn't that great a stretch for him.

“I had written a lot of new material that could easily go in this rootsy kind of direction,” Parker says on the phone from his home in New York. “I had done these songs in rough demo form using live tapes on a vintage 16-track . . . and the stripped-down, lo-fi sound just felt right. Plus, I wanted to make an album with just one mood and a sound that ties it all together.”

Lyrically, the eternally raspy-voiced Parker offers up his usual eclectic selection of intriguing topics, from underachieving Englishmen (“Nation of Shopkeepers”) and second-rate comedians (“Anything for a Laugh”) to more inwardly focused laments on love and regret, like the bittersweet “Things I've Never Said.”

These days, Parker says he's more content—even describes himself as a “happily married family man” who shares the feelings of someone whose priorities have simply changed. “It's easy to make bold proclamations or trash someone, but so what?” suggests Parker. “It's much harder for me to create a sweet, poignant tune . . . songs with some depth of feeling that, at the same time, aren't sappy. It's a big challenge, but that's the way to write a meaningful song when you're my age.”

Searching for solid evidence of the change, we asked him to assess American pop culture from the viewpoint of a native East Londoner now living in the U.S. Parker refused to take the bait.

“The America I see every day is vast and expansive. . . . It's way more open-minded than in Great Britain,” he maintains. “The people I've gotten to know read, discuss and analyze. I love that here. There's very little pretension, actually.”

Parker's especially fond of his loyal cult following. He knows he can play live just about any song he wants and his fans will be enraptured, so long as it's not something like a cover of “Milkshake” or “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.”

“I don't like doing tours where I play what everyone expects to hear; that's a bloody bore,” says Parker. “I've never had any defining pop hits, so I'm really free, in a way. I think my fans are cultured and respond to my artistic side trips—even the few misguided detours I've subjected them to.”

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