What if Salieri weren't second rate? What if Mozart's shadow obscured an equal instead of an inferior imitator? Wouldn't that be a greater tragedy?
Such a thing occurred in the late 1970's. If you went looking for the best album put out by a bespectacled guitar toting new-wave punk with a tight band roaring out of London, you'd probably wind up with Elvis Costello and the Attractions 'This Year's Model' or 'My Aim Is True' from '77 or '78.
But the best album that fits that description from that time period is actually 'Squeezing Out Sparks' by Graham Parker & The Rumour from 1979.
In one form or another, every album that is on this Top 50 List is, to my mind, perfect. They might be filled with mistakes, bad recording quality, even experimental music that fails. But they are perfect, either in the place they hold in my heart or an overall aesthetic.
This is a perfect album through either prism.
It opens with 'Discovering Japan' which is about (in no particular order) the A-bomb, a Japanese woman brokenhearted by the callous attention given to her by GI's, and the new American lover who is obsessed with her but can't break through the cultural barrier. It could also be about mankind hurtling toward a nuclear holocaust. Or hot Japanese schoolgirls. Basically all of the above.
Key lyric? 'I shouted sayonara/It didn't mean good bye'.
So what do you do after you've been burned by an international relationship overwhelmed by the nuclear zeitgeist? You turn to 'Local Girls'. This provincialism leads Parker to ruminate, 'You look all right in that cheap green dress/But every time you swish it round you make me disappear'. While the complications that arise from a globe trotting lifestyle are vast and sexy in their impossibility, Parker winds up spitting to himself, 'Don't bother with a local girl/Don't bother with 'em they don't bother me'.
He then takes a step back to look in the mirror with 'Nobody Hurts You' which contains the Dr. Phil-worthy bromide, 'Nobody hurts you harder than yourself'. Somehow coming from Parker it doesn't feel trite or patronizing but rather a hard-fought grim determinate necessity.
So far the album has been a sexy little joy ride, careening from girl to girl, lost in the ramifications of modern love.
You know that moment in a horror movie when a scene with a laughing crowd of teenagers goes on a wee bit too long? You have a small voice telling you the hit is coming, the fright is waiting, but you don't quite listen fast enough so when the monster jumps out at you it is doubly frightening because you almost saw it coming?
'You Can't Be Too Strong' is that scene in 'Squeezing Out Sparks'. The title of the album comes from a lyric in the song. It is hard to write about this song. It is a song about abortion. The voice of the song alternates from the voice of the mother to the voice of the unborn child. Now, I am a Pro-Choice guy. Read John Irving's 'The Cider House Rules' for a treatise on why.
This song makes me question my beliefs. I come out on the other end still believing in a woman's right to choose but Parker does something extraordinarily brave with this song. I don't even feel comfortable quoting the lyrics here, so perfectly married to the music are they.
The song has a dual effect. One you cannot ignore the central question inherent in the song. You are forced to contemplate your beliefs without any barrier of myth or analogy. And in context, it pushes the album to a higher plane, one in which all human behavior is up for judgment, one where every action however slight can have disastrous consequences.
Hence the next song, 'Passion Is No Ordinary Word'. The singer struggles inside of a relationship where 'The world is easy when you're just playing around with it/Everything's a thrill and every girl's a kill/And then it gets unreal/And then you don't feel anything'. The music throbs behind his moan and we sense his dissatisfaction in a visceral way. Plus it rocks.
He then howls that 'Saturday Night Is Dead' which is perhaps the most self-explanatory song title in the history of rock and roll. His rage has boiled down to the finest point and the next song is the aural equivalent of throwing your hands up in frustration and anger...'Love Gets You Twisted' twists and turns like an old-time dance reel and ends in Parker repeating 'Love gets you twisted/Screw yourself up/Screw yourself up/Screw yourself up up up'.
Here is where the shit starts to storm. The tension within the album has been building, like a tightening screw, like a tautening rope, and you get the sense that something will snap. In 'Protection' he opens with 'So all of you be damned/We can't have heaven crammed/So Winston Churchill said/I could've smacked his head' which is akin to Bruce Springsteen telling FDR to go fuck himself. Paranoia has overrun his synapses and he begins to obsess on negative imagery, saying 'It ain't the knife through your heart that tears you apart/It's just the thought of someone sticking it in'.
In a minor impossible moment of levity he then sits and turns his attention to the sky in 'Waiting For The UFOs'. To give the song that little bit of absurdity it needs, he does not pronounce UFO as three separate letters but all as one word, Yufos. It is hilarious but chilling as we've witnessed his descent into madness until he can no longer relate to people at all but can only obsess about visitation. In what seems like an aside, he muses, 'This new obsession is turning us alien too/Much more resounding my heart just stopped pounding for you'. The prospect of an invasion is the only thing that can kill his love.
In the finale 'Don't Get Excited' what seems like an order is actually a description. He can't feel. The new girl doesn't get it. She tries but his capacity for arousal has been stunted after what he's been through. He croons, 'You try to reach a vital part of me/My interest level's dropping rapidly/It's all excuses, baby/All a stall/We just don't get excited'.
And that is the final fallout from the nuclear disaster which opens the album. How can you get a hard-on in the face of the devastation of the planet? How do you commit to a woman when she can't stop the dead voices in her head? How do you have a good time when Saturday night is dead?
If you'd never heard of Elvis Costello you'd listen to this album and say you'd found a Mozart.