Writing brief capsule reviews of the best songs from the '80s career of English guitar pop act Squeeze is challenging not only because there's so much quality material to choose from. Song for song, in fact, the group is responsible for some of the most musically and lyrically dense music of the rock era, filled with delightfully specific narrative details and inventive instrumental precision. Here's a chronological look at the band's finest tunes from its most active period, including more than a few classics of the new wave and early MTV era.
Unfortunately, one of Squeeze's most popular and brilliant narrative achievements, the unforgettable "Up the Junction," came out squarely in 1979 and can't fairly be squeezed onto this list. Pun both unintended and instantly regretted. Instead, I begin with this lead-off single from 1980's Argybargy, a tune that showcases Tilbrook's gift for compositional complexity and Difford's ambiguously poetic lyrics. The former's jazz-tinged guitar solo rounds out the sophisticated talent level on display here. "I want to be good/Is that not enough?" Tilbrook sings - in a solid portrait of self-aware loutishness.
Though a lesser U.K. hit than its immediate predecessor, this track features tremendously detailed descriptions of a distinctly British beach holiday setting - complete with "a Harold Robbins paperback." Difford's lyrical eye has always been tightly focused, but his observational poetry here is nothing short of a revelation, especially coupled with Tilbrook's rhythmically vital melodies: "Shrinking in the sea so cold/Topless ladies look away. A he-man in a sudden shower/Shelters from the rain." At its best, the music of Squeeze accomplishes cleverness without stooping to mere language showboating, and this is pretty close to the best.
As a literature student, I found out pretty early about the danger of overquoting source material, but when it comes to Squeeze, that impulse becomes nearly irresistible. This exquisite album track offers surprises at every turn, from the droning repetition of the chorus at the end of the song to one of pop's most memorable lines about the singular joy of music: "Singles remind me of kisses/Albums remind me of plans." A lot of early alternative rock bands were accused around 1981 of lacking substance, but Squeeze really never should have been among them. Here's another reason why.
For 1981's East Side Story, the replacement of original keyboardist Jools Holland with journeyman blue-eyed soul singer Paul Carrack had changed the dynamic a bit for Squeeze. However, for this initial single from that acclaimed LP, major changes were not particularly apparent - apart from a greater reliance on a guitar sound that was a definite precursor to jangle pop. Ultimately, it comes down to the songwriting once again, an area in which Difford and Tilbrook rarely disappoint. Another conflicted portrait of strained domesticity, this one registers as yet another rewarding classic: "Legs up with a book and a drink, Now is that love that's making you think?"
Carrack memorably takes the bulk of the lead vocals on this, perhaps Squeeze's most well-known and celebrated song of its catalogue. Difford scores once again lyrically, while the introductory organ lines also make a strong claim as the tune's trademark. As one of the defining tracks of the new wave era (even if it was far more eclectic than most representatives of that genre in impulse and execution), "Tempted" contains some truly magical Difford-Tilbrook collaboration. Sharing lead vocals turns out to be a good move not only in terms of unselfish bandmate behavior but because Carrack's a perfect fit for lyrics like these: "At my bedside, empty pocket, a foot without a sock/Your body gets much closer, I fumble for the clock/Alarmed by the seduction, I wish that it would stop."
This standout track from 1982's otherwise disappointing Sweets from a Stranger continues to deliver three decades later as one of the most compelling melodic gifts of the '80s. Consider this part of the sparkling chorus: "Now she's gone and I'm out with a friend (out with a friend)/With lips full of passion and coffee in bed." The marriage of lyrical and musical brilliance found in Difford/Tilbrook compositions is remarkably precise and yet never mechanical or clinical in its impact. Expert songcraft and arranging like this don't come around very often, which is why Squeeze deserves a special place among various music legends.