Album of the Week, August 10: The Mona Lisa’s Sister by Graham Parker

ParkerMLSGraham Parker was born in London in 1963 and developed a love of music as a child. In his teens, he became particularly fond of American soul and R&B. He left school and worked a wide variety of odd jobs. While living in Gibraltar, he hooked up with a local band and caught the music bug in earnest. Moving back to London, he decided to pursue a music career and sought out like-minded musicians. He connected with a number of talented players, including a couple of members of the recently defunct pub rock band Brinsley Schwarz. They began crafting solid working-class rock with soul and ska influences. Working with rising star producers Nick Lowe and Dave Robinson, Parker created a striking debut release, Howlin’ Wind. His passionate vocals and expertly crafted songs meshed flawlessly with the band, now known as the Rumour. The next four albums were credited to Graham Parker and the Rumour and established the unit as a force to be reckoned with. Label troubles and elusive commercial success eventually led Parker to go solo for two albums before releasing one album with a new band, the Shot. In 1988, after a dozen productive but often frustrating years, two bands and four labels, Parker re-established himself with the first disc of his new solo career.

Title The Mona Lisa’s Sister
Act Graham Parker
Label RCA Release Date April 1988
Producer Graham Parker and Brinsley Schwarz
U.S. Chart  77 U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. Don’t Let It Break You Down
  2. Under the Mask of Happiness
  3. Back In Time
  4. I’m Just Your Man
  5. OK Hieronymus
  6. Get Started, Start A Fire
  7. The Girl Isn’t Ready
  8. Blue Highways
  9. Success
  10. I Don’t Know
  11. Cupid

Reuniting with former Rumour mates Brinsley Schwarz and Andrew Bodnar as his rhythm section, Parker takes three steps back to get a running start on this new phase. It’s a smart move, as he turns out stronger, bolder songs than he had in years. His vocals are fresh and passionate and his writing, always on the bitter side of wry, is as pointed and smart as ever. For the first time, he seems comfortable as a solo artist with a good backing band rather than being one vital part of a crack unit.

That shows up immediately in Don’t Let It Break You Down, a determined rant against the pressures of modern life. Angry and compassionate at the same time, it’s a plea for the listener to find and celebrate the best parts of life even in dark days. It’s classic Parker with a fresh energy. Under the Mask of Happiness looks at more personal politics, deconstructing a fatally broken relationship with scalpel precision. This one-two punch shows a veteran artist reclaiming his status.

Back In Time is an ode to — and warning about — nostalgia, well-suited to this disc and nicely sequenced. It shows off Parker’s more sympathetic side without revealing any weakness.I’m Just Your Man allows that vulnerability to appear in one of the singer’s finest love songs. A startlingly confessional song given his effective but strident catalog, it sets the tone for his growth and maturity over albums to come. OK Hieronymus is an oddly elliptical song, using Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights as a metaphor for the eccentricities, perversities, and darker doings of life in the 1980s. The next artist reference, however, is one of Parker’s finest accomplishments.

The de facto title track, Get Started Start A Fire begins with the tale of the Mona Lisa’s sister and uses other women — Marilyn Monroe and Joan of Arc — to weave a compelling narrative. Interlocking tales of regret, ambition, and frustration, Parker crafts a brilliant allegory. His trademark vocal sneer is tuned to just the right pitch as he castigates the forces of oppression and makes real, sympathetic portraits of his central characters.

The Girl Isn’t Ready is a bit of a throwback, a fifties-feeling pop tune of (barely) restrained passion. It’s well done and demonstrates a different kind of musical nostalgia than Parker was previously known for. Blue Highways is an ode to the back roads, a sort of road-less-traveled song in which the journey is its own reward. The metaphor is nicely handled and the song works very well, showing off the growth in Parker’s writing. Another quiet song, it also contributes to the mixed musical palette of the disc. Success ponders the worth of its title value. It’s a well-placed reflection from a man rebuilding his career and manages to send a universal message while making it clear that Parker is in it for his own happiness now. That effectively wraps up the album, with a surprisingly effective coda following. Covering Sam Cooke’s Cupid is an homage to a favorite artist, a clear signal of the mellowing diversity of his music, and a lovely rendition of a song that shows even an angry young man can find happiness.

FURTHER LISTENING: Parker has had a sturdy career with a lot of great music. His two best albums bracket his period with the Rumour. Howlin’ Wind was a stunning roar of a debut. Frequently cited as part of a trinity — with Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True and Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp! — that demonstrated how solid musical chops, a dedication to musical history, a sense of invention, and passionately smart lyrics could shape the future of the post-punk / New Wave landscape. Squeezing Out Sparks in 1979 refined that sound and demonstrated some greater musical diversity as Parker’s lyrical talents achieved a laser-like precision. The rest of the Rumour discs have fine moments, but demonstrate the perils of rushing out product. They often display amazing technical skill on less remarkable material. The three records between the Rumour and Mona Lisa are similarly spotty, with some great tracks and a fair amount of filler. Parker’s career since 1990 has been a solid set of more mature reflections with some very good songs but fewer powerful highs. Fortunately, the bulk of his best material is anthologized very nicely on 1991’s Passion Is No Ordinary Word.


About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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