Tape Review: Squeeze’s “Argybargy”

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Squeeze

Argybargy

(A&M Records)

Squeeze is an interesting band within musical history’s canon in the sense that they seem to be over-hyped or under-hyped at every turn. Early in their career, Squeeze’s songwriting duo of Tilbrook (music) and Difford (lyrics) was propped up by the British press as the heir apparent to Lennon and McCartney. Most of you probably know Squeeze, they’ve overall undoubtedly been a successful band, but that also means knowing that their presence in the social consciousness is not nearly as omnipotent as that of The Beatles. That doesn’t necessarily speak to quality though, so let’s take a look at what is generally considered to be Squeeze’s best album, 1980’s Argybargy.

Talking about Argybargy in sequence definitely doesn’t mean saving the best for last. As was (and still is in many instances) commonplace for mainstream-aiming pop albums, this album is front-loaded with pop gold, particularly in the first two tracks, arguably the two best of the band’s entire career. “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)” is about as perfect as any British pop song has ever been, and an excellent example as to why, to an extent, such hype was warranted. Your standard pop tune is often structured with the chorus receiving the lion’s share of the attention: the verses and bridges need to get you there and not suck along the way. Ultimately though, it’s the chorus you’re there for. What Squeeze, at their best, do so well, is make everything count. Tilbrook’s feel for structure is obviously important to this, but it’s really Difford’s lyrics that drive this point home. The greatest trick Difford, and Squeeze, ever played was demonstrating that you can be clever without being pretentious and fun without being silly. At a cursory listen, it can be very easy to dismiss Squeeze as just another bouncy new wave group, but the answers as to why so many are smitten by them can be found in the verse lyrics to “Pulling Mussels”. Difford is able to painted detailed, novelesque pictures with observational humor, within the limited confines of traditional pop form, like exceedingly few others. Verses such as “Squinting faces at the sky / A Harold Robbins paperback / Surfers drop their boards and dry / And everybody wants a hat” and “Shrinking in the sea so cold / Topless ladies look away / A he-man in a sudden shower / Shelters from the rain”, this efficient, vivid, playful language, married with Tilbrook’s tight, focused, digestible songwriting, make Squeeze what they are: pop music for everyone. “Pulling Mussels” is easily the smartest song ever written about people trying to get fucked at the beach on holiday, a peerless gem of high-brow horniness, and Squeeze at the absolute peak of their powers.

Lead single “Another Nail In My Heart” is nearly as good, with its happy, upbeat, hook-laden form masking lyrics about the end of a relationship, the music putting on a cheerful facade for the hurt within. These two tracks alone make Squeeze worship make sense, and if the entire album was at this level, it’d be one of the best pop albums of all-time.

But it’s not quite there.

This isn’t to say the rest is bad, far from it, but nothing else on the album equals the absolute magic of the opening two. “Separate Beds” and “Vicky Verky” (the latter’s “With her hair up in his fingers / The fish and chips smell lingers / Under amber streetlamps / She holds the law in her hands / The moistness of the damp night / Falls silent through the lamplight / Although she’s only fourteen / She really knows her courting” being another particularly excellent example of Difford’s writing ability) perhaps come the closest, both very strong songs in their own right. “Wrong Side of the Moon” is also really great, if seeming a bit out of place, a shuffling doo-wop throwback fronted by Jools Holland. “Misadventure”, “If I Didn’t Love You”, and “There at the Top” are all solid enough as well, but we’ve got three pretty sore thumbs in the form of “I Think I’m Go Go”, “Farfisa Beat”, and “Here Comes That Feeling”. “I Think I’m Go Go” is out of place, but not in a good way like “Wrong Side of the Moon”, sounding like an underdeveloped outtake that would be more at home on their self-titled debut. “Farfisa Beat” is actually mildly irritating, especially after such intelligent material, with a canned, repetitive rockabilly guitar line and dumb, lazy lyrics (“Flash flash mirror ball / Stereo and disco / Wow wow ain’t she tall / Moved off my feet / To the farfisa beat” isn’t winning any awards). “Here Comes That Feeling” is an interesting experiment in Syd Barrett-like weirdness, but ultimately doesn’t really succeed in coming into its own. Its inclusion isn’t nearly as egregious as the other two, however, showing some ambition beyond ‘label-mandated filler’.

So where do we land on Squeeze and, specifically, Argybargy? It’s a very good, sometimes brilliant pop album by a very good, sometimes brilliant pop band. A flawed one, particularly towards the middle, but one containing two of the best songs of its time and plenty of other enjoyable ones, and one worth remembering, listening to, and writing about nearly forty years later. Tilbrook and Difford perhaps aren’t the most consistent songwriting duo ever, but they’re consistent enough, and with a couple songs like “Pulling Mussels” and “Another Nail In My Heart”, consistent enough is more than good enough.

 

Favorite tracks: “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)”, “Another Nail In My Heart”

 

 

Rating: Strongly Recommended

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