Elvis Costello's second album was called This Year's Model, and that was, among other things, a comment on the insecurities of the trendy world of popular music, in which this year's commercial hit or critical favorite is next year's forgotten reject.
One person who's been forgotten recently is Graham Parker, and ironically enough, the "model" that pushed him into obsolescence was Mr. Costello. Until the hipper rock critics clasped Mr. Costello to their collective bosoms as the world's great white rock‐and‐roll hope, they had been clasping Mr. Parker.
Mr. Parker's eclipse may not have been because of any failing on his part, however, or even because Mr. Costello is so wonderful. Mr. Parker accuses his former record company, Mercury, which he thinks failed to advance his career properly. In fact, Mr. Parker is so exercised that he's written a song about the subject, called "Mercury Poisoning." It hasn't been formally released, and isn't likely to be. But his new label, Arista, has seen to it that promotional copies are in abundant supply.
This is not an unprecedented maneuver — after all, the Sex Pistols gave us "EMI," a number cataloguing their complaints about that company. But "Mercury Poisoning" happens to be Mr. Parker's best song in a long time (to fulfill his Mercury contract, he cranked out an indifferent live album last year that helped shift critics' attentions to Mr. Costello). It's angry and passionate and exciting, and it would be nice if the general public could hear it.
In the meantime, there is Mr. Parker's first Arista album to contend with. It's called Squeezing Out Sparks — a comment on the difficulties of sustaining inspiration? — and although nothing on it has the immediate impact of "Mercury Poisoning," it's still Mr. Parker's best album in a while.
Both Mr. Parker and Mr. Costello have sometimes seemed to limit their effectiveness (and their commercial appeal) by concentrating excessively on angry denunciation — in other words, to confuse focus with a lack of range. But on this new album, Mr. Parker shows a commendable ability to vary his musical mood and textures, which he is able to do in part because he has a more flexible voice than Mr. Costello. The lyrics here are interesting and trenchant, and the music can be tough and rocking or softer and more overtly tender than Mr. Parker has allowed himself to be before.
One ostensible love song, though, suggests that the fury of "Mercury Poisoning" may be misplaced. The refrain is, "Nobody hurts you, other than yourself." If that's true, why get so upset with Mercury?
While all of this has been going on, Mr. Costello has hardly been idle; Mr. Costello seems never to be idle. He's due at the Palladium on March 31 and will engage in a three‐club marathon on April Fool's Day, one set to a club, with tickets sold through a lottery organized by WNEW‐FM. And Columbia has just released a single from his Armed Forces album, Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." Those who already have the album may still be interested in the B‐side, which consists of his one minute, 25 second, cavernously sincere account of "My Funny Valentine," the Rodgers and Hart staple that about every singer of the previous generation recorded at one time or another.