It’s been 35 years or so since your writer was introduced to the glorious amalgamation of rock, soul, and reggae put forth by Graham Parker and the Rumour, and my passion for the singer/songwriter and his backup band hasn’t waned since they released their last album together 32 years ago. That said, it’s been a wild ride ever since – Parker subsequently issued several good solo albums and at least four or five that can be considered great or even “classic” whatever that means in this day and age. Add to this a busy touring schedule as evidence Parker hasn’t been acting the slacker over the past three decades.
Now Parker and his wayward cohorts have reunited for Three Chords Good, a fine return if not somewhat more mellow than the pairing’s initial heyday. The reunion was a done deal even before film director Judd Apatow recruited the act for his sequel of sorts to Knocked Up, entitled This Is 40, and due for release before Christmas.
The album features several songs wistfully acknowledging the passage of time, and display that Parker’s songwriting prowess hasn’t deteriorated over the years, nor has the musicianship of guitarists Martin Belmont and Brinsley Schwarz, bassist Andrew Bodnar, keyboardist Bob Andrews, and drummer Steve Goulding. Parker’s snarl, which has prompted frequent and too-easy critical comparisons to Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, has been replaced for the most part by a middle-aged, Dylanesque gruffness that still conveys passion and sensitivity in equal measure.
If some of the crackling energy of the ‘70s output is missing it is perhaps as a result of the absence of ace producers Nick Lowe, Mutt Lange, and Jack Nitzsche that captured the fiery exuberance of the pub-rockers and their acid-addled, adenoidal frontman back in the ‘70s, or – just as likely – the result of the artists’ middle age, a lengthy sabbatical between gigs, and the introspective nature of all but a few of the new songs.
All of this leads to the lead-off single, “Coathangers,” from Three Chords Good, one of the album’s most invigorated rockers, and, if readers will forgive the pun, one of the most ill-conceived as it deals with abortion rights in the United States, the British-born Parker’s adopted homeland. If one follows the song’s internal logic, the political hackey-sack of abortion is a zero-sum game of either legalization in the interest of women’s reproductive rights on one hand or home procedures involving the title implement on the other.
Compare this ham-handed approach to Parker’s other song on the subject, “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” from the album Squeezing Out Sparks. In this song, Parker sensitively depicts the various points of view involved in a terminated pregnancy and stops shy of calling the practice immoral by declaring to the actors and audience: “You decide what’s wrong.”
The mother, anesthetized for the abortion, also anesthetizes her conscience with a half-hearted justification: “It’s just a mistake I won’t have to face/Don’t give it a place/Don’t give it a chance/It’s lucky in a way.” The sperm-
donor father abandons the mother to frolic with the boys “who’ll laugh when I say I left it overseas.” As for the doctor nervously performing “the service,” he “wishes to God he were dead.” And, yet, Parker asserts: “You can’t be too hard, too tough, too rough, too right, too wrong.”
Just so. The song works because it avoids the politicization that has muddied the waters on the issue, instead depicting the dehumanizing impact abortion has on all players in the equation.
The ballad was hailed and rightly so in 1979, but apparently hasn’t aged well with a certain segment of Parker’s audience or, maybe, not with Parker himself. As the agitprop lyrics of the rocking “Coathangers” display, subtlety and nuance have no place in today’s war against women. As a result, it’s all or nothing when it comes to addressing reproductive rights. Those opposed are, natch, all Bible-thumping, Old Testament possessors of the Y chromosome who stick their Billy Sunday noses into womenhood’s collective uterus.
These fellows all are “always on the prowl to strip your rights away/To send you back to the back alley/Back to a darker day./Here come the wrecking crew swinging their hammers/C’mon girls grab your coathangers.” This is all subtle as a flying mallet. But it gets worse: “The ancients are coming by camel or limousine/To criminalize your body and call it a sin/Working through the ranks right up to the highest court/Cause getting knocked up by your daddy that’s all your fault./Here comes the judges, swinging their hammers/C’mon girls get your coathangers.”
Regardless one’s view on legalized abortion, depicting it as a polarized choice between patriarchal judges in cahoots with daughter rapists and everyone else may qualify as lyrically clever but trivializes the headier moral issues in the areas in between. For example, one may acknowledge Roe v. Wade as settled U.S. law as well as embrace the tenets of Obamacare, but balk at coercing taxpayers to subsidize abortions and forcing Catholic and other faith-based hospitals to provide them.
Parker presents a false choice in his attempt to create a pop anthem, which is a tragic misstep in a body of work rife with examples of stellar songwriting. It’s terrific that the Rumour and Judd Apatow are assisting Parker reinvigorate his profile in the public consciousness. It’s unfortunate, however, that one song could sully the collaboration.