The ostensible premise behind Graham Parker's new studio release is that he created a batch of imaginary TV shows and then wrote the theme songs to accompany them. In the liner notes, he even provides a synopsis of each show rather than the song lyrics. It's an original, offbeat idea, befitting the witty Parker.
And it has absolutely nothing to do with the songs on this album. Not a damn thing. Yes, Imaginary Television is most certainly a concept album, but THAT isn't the concept. Rather than the collection of amusing novelty songs one might expect, Imaginary Television may be the most personal, vulnerable collection of songs Parker has ever released. It's a portrait of a man looking back over his life and re-evaluating everything, a man trying to come to grips with who he is---as an artist, a father, a husband, a human being.
Why the subterfuge? I suspect it's because some of these songs are so personal and cut so deeply for Parker that he felt he had to get a modicum of emotional distance from them before releasing them to the world. If I'm correct, then the entire television theme song concept is a mere fig leap to cover the emotional nakedness of the songs. Or, to borrow a phrase from the album itself, "a really cheap disguise."
And what songs they are. "Weather Report" concerns a man who feels out of step with the times; perhaps Parker's referring to his status as music industry outsider and this song is intended as his variation on John Lennon's "Watching the Wheels." "Broken Skin" is Parker reviewing the many disappointments he's experienced over the years and trying to lower his expectations ("We're all downsizing what we do with our lives"), something that must be challenging for an artist who once seemed destined to become (and, quite frankly, deserved to become) a huge rock superstar. In "It's My Party (But I Won't Cry)," he strives for resilience in the face of a broken relationship ("The wound is fatal, but I won't bleed") while "Bring Me a Heart Again" yearns for the romanticism of his youth ("I don't feel comfortable inside my own skin, it doesn't keep things in"). "Always Greener" addresses marital discontent and likens leaving a marriage to pulling the handle on a slot machine. And "1st Responder" is a refreshingly honest "tough love" song for his son, that's equal parts "I'll always be there for you" and "But try not to screw up too much, okay?"
But surely the emotional centerpiece of the album is a sequence of songs that each seems to pose the question "Who am I really?" in a different way. "See Things My Way" grapples with the impenetrable nature of personal identity, beginning with Parker's admission that, "There is more than one of me, so many I lose count," before concluding, "Everybody's head is filled with more than just one soul." That song then segues into "You're Not Where You Think You Are," in which Parker juxtaposes the physical dislocation of a musician on the road, waking up in a different city every morning, with the existential dislocation so many of us experience in our lives. Here Parker is at his most vulnerable and self-revealing: "This room got really weird, it changed before my eyes/And then I grew this beard, a really cheap disguise." And later, "The self I used to have has long since gone to waste, and in the coming years I will all be replaced/You're not who you think you are, you're not who you think you are anymore." It's a brilliant song, one of the finest Parker has even written, a poignant ode to anyone who's life didn't turn out the way he planned---in other words, just about everyone.
Next comes "Head on Straight," in which Parker seems to pull himself together, almost as if he's recovering from the two previous compositions, singing, "I had my week in the news, but now I'm old news now, I'm not the news they choose/But things are looking up alright, now I got my head on straight." Finally, the sequence concludes with a cover of Johnny Nash's "More Questions Than Answers." And while Nash's song isn't nearly strong enough to hold its own against Parker's original compositions, it does carry a certain emotional resonance, it's lyrics and reggae beat recalling Parker's own "Don't Ask Me Questions," a standout track from his 1976 debut album.
Or maybe I'm completely wrong. Maybe this really is just a random bunch of songs written around a clever but silly gimmick. Maybe if GP himself read this review, he'd laugh his ass off. But let's face it, if Dylan produced an amazing collection like this, people would be scouring every semicolon looking for meaning. So listen to the album and decide for yourself what you hear. What I hear is a collection of deeply personal songs---many poignant, some even profound---from a master songwriter. And one of the finest albums of Graham Parker's obviously still vibrant career.