How do I feel about this?

That, my friends, is a complicated question. It’s great to have Parsons back as an album-making entity. I interviewed him a few years ago and his reticence about committing time to make a full album – instead of the occasional digital single – was unmistakable. His last album was the all electronic A Valid Path from 2004. That’s a long time to be out of the game.

I’m grateful he decided to give it a shot. The Secret, while not his best solo album, let alone his best in all with Alan Parsons Project discs included, is still a good effort. Honestly, I’m not trying to dodge with faint praise.

I’ll hit the nails that keep sticking up on me before I get to the back slope. Unlike Parsons’ other solo records, this one feels the most like it is shooting for APP territory, sometimes uncomfortably so. “As Lights Fall” fits directly in between “Eye In The Sky” and Vulture Culture‘s “Sooner or Later,” except that it is Parsons singing and not his former APP cohort Eric Woolfson, who passed away in 2009. Parsons acquits himself well, and there’s nothing to dislike about the track, but there’s an air of the strategic about it. Parsons is trying to remind you of his considerable bona fides.

Another issue that sticks a bit is the lack of some of his former bandmates. If you know APP well enough, then you know of the very large and impermanent roster of singers that have played a role. I think any effort to reach back into the glory days would have been easier had bassist/vocalist David Paton (also of the band Pilot), or singer Colin Blunstone (The Zombies) made an appearance. (FYI: Blunstone recorded the vocals for Parsons’ third solo album, The Time Machine, performing “Ignorance Is Bliss.”) One note of continuity: APP and Parsons-solo guitarist Ian Bairnson provides guitar for the closing “I Can’t Get There From Here.”

Third: that cover art. Oof.

Enough quibbling. Those are not the albums we got. What we got is steady, assured Parsons-helmed soft-prog, and that’s not nothing. The opening instrumental, a rendering of Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” features Steve Hackett on guitar. “Miracle” offers up a blessedly toned-down Jason Mraz. “Sometimes” has Foreigner’s Lou Gramm doing the honors. He’s in fine voice, considering what he’s been through over the past decade or so. Health issues diminished his higher-register so it might surprise people trying to put two and two together to add that this is “that” Lou Gramm. It is and just go with it. Gramm’s duskier tone fits the track perfectly.

P.J. Olsson, who was a vocalist for A Valid Path and has been a mainstay of Parsons’ touring unit, handles “Years of Glory,” and Jared Mahone’s vocals on “I Can’t Get There From Here” recalls both Woolfson and Blunstone.

The record overall sounds rich, augmented with the orchestral flourishes fans have come to expect from classic Parsons. As someone who has, over the past ten years, experienced one too many comeback albums that sound on-the-cheap, it’s a good thing that Parsons was and is a premiere talent with the construction of music.

You, as a Parsons fan, may be biased and might not take to The Secret immediately. The absence of Woolfson was always a sore spot for fans who tried to love the former Parsons solo records. I did not share their issues and took to the notion of all the great vocalists he pulled in back then, including 10cc’s Eric Stewart, Ambrosia’s David Pack, Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley, and more. Still, Woolfson brought unique intangibles to the table, including his own voice, an unrequited romanticism and a sweaty paranoia that kept the APP records tonally interesting. I’d be lying if I said that ingredient still is missing.

And there’s little doubt that this record has the trying-too-hard fever, but the numbers are daunting. After fifteen years – with an album at that time that was so unlike all he’d done before – Parsons would have needed to perform a degree of fan service just to jump in. I am relieved to say that even at it’s thickest, it never does damage to the whole, and when the record works (often), it works well. The Secret is that it is a better album than anyone had a right to expect, but not a perfect album. I’ll take it nonetheless.