Ray Parker Jr. returns after a lengthy hiatus (last release was 1991's "I Love You Like You Are") of 15 years. Parker's absence was largely due to personal matters including taking care of his aging parents. The good thing about the time away is that Parker seems completely rejuvenated as an artist. "I'm Free" is Parker's most personally revealing effort to date.
Parker made a career of documenting issues that often arise in romantic relationships. On songs like "Two Places at The Same Time" and "A Women Needs Love (Just Like You Do)" Parker gained a reputation for being sort of the Dr. Phil (way before Dr. P of course) of R&B/pop crooners. On "I'm Free" Parker has matured into the sage observer who is unafraid to delve into difficult topics that often come up in relationships but sometimes remain unresolved.
The CD opens to the strains of a Spanish guitar that might seem more at home on a Marc Anthony or Enrique Iglesias release. The song title "Mexico" is highlighted by a beautiful rhythm arrangement accented by mariachi horns and an intoxicating tale of reconnecting with a lover down south of the boarder. "Glass of Wine" goes into more complicated territory as it deals with the receipt of a letter from a lawyer requiring a signature to finalize divorce proceedings. Like most of the more introspective aspects of "I'm Free" Parker delivers the narrative in the first person but those who might be concerned can rest assured that Parker is still happily married. However, he has observed others dealing with these kinds of painful issues. Also, it should be noted that Parker uses the "glass of wine" refrain as a metaphor to not be so stressed about life rather then an endorsement or solution for dealing with these kinds of problems.
"Middle Age Crisis" takes on the May/December relationship of an older man and a younger woman with a child looking for a sugar daddy to help out with financial support in exchange for the persuasive charms that a young woman can offer. The rhythm track sets an interesting back drop with Parker adding tasty electric and acoustic fills that bring dramatic tension to the song. The next song titled "Mismaloya Beach" takes its name from an exquisite beach located just outside of Puerto Vallarta. Parker has been known to venture into the instrumentals with selections like "For Those Who Like To Grove" and "After Midnight." On "Mismaloya Beach" Parker is perhaps at his most assured in an instrumental setting as he floats along delivering an irresistible lead melody that showcases his considerable skill on guitar.
At first a cover of "The Guitar Man" (Top 20 pop hit by Bread) might seem like an odd choice by Parker but upon further inspection it makes perfect sense. First, Parker delivered some of the most indelible pop songs of the late 70's with selections like "Jack and Jill" and "You Can't Change That." So, "The Guitar Man" fits in nicely with Parker's natural inclination toward pop. Then there is the connection with Parker as a true "Guitar Man." Before Parker had all of the success as a member of Raydio and then later as a solo artist he was one of the most sought after studio session guitarists on the L.A. scene in the mid to late 70's. On "The Guitar Man" Parker has the appropriate level of melancholy mixed with a tinge of irony both vocally and on guitar. The title track is a low down blues romp that finds an emancipated Parker rejoicing in new found freedom. Sample lines "I'm Free nobody got chains on me/Guess I should have thanked her when she left me/ for putting me out of my misery." As direct as those lines are Parker is even more emphatic in getting this message across via some scintillating blues guitar that absolutely scorches this track.
"Rum Punch" is Parker's ode to Jimmy Buffet's "Margaritaville" complete with tropical effects and reggae rhythm. Parker is simply advocating a good time that can be had by all by getting together with friends and forgetting about the cares of the world. "Sting Ray" is the second instrumental on "I'm Free" and Parker sets another carefree mood with the Wave ready selection. "Forgive Me" is perhaps the most provocative song on "I'm Free" where Parker investigates the struggle that exists between morality and promiscuous relationships. In "Forgive Me" the central theme is stated as follows "Forgive me father for I have sinned/What's worse is I'll probably do it again/You see sin appears to be man's destiny/At least it is for me/Fornication I know is wrong/but the urge is just to strong." Parker does not offer solutions or absolution for this struggle even though forgiveness is sought but evidently the protagonist is resigned to succumbing to the inherent temptation of assorted relationships.
"The Book" is similar in tone to "Forgive Me" as it speaks of being involved in a relationship where one partner is not committed and treats the other partner with indifference. The song has the most similarities with Parker's Raydio days instrumentally as the beat bounces along happily with a sing a long quality while the central character laments the poor treatment that he continues to endure in an effort to complete "The Book" of unhappy endings. The CD closes with "Gibson's Theme" (the third instrumental) a song that is named after Parker's son. Parker was inspired to write the song while watching Gibson perform in a gymnastics class. "Gibson's Theme" has a cinematic scope to it with an arrangement that recalls the Chariots of Fire soundtrack. The track moves along in a majestic way with all the hope and wonder that is inspired by youth. On "I'm Free" Parker is decidedly more mature and essential with an expression that celebrates experience and life.