Difford and Tilbrook's talents are intact on first post-Squeeze LP
The material is terrific, but the album lacks focus
Review- Rolling Stone, June 21, 1984
By Christopher Connelly.
Difford and Tilbrook
A & M
*** (out of 5)
The gnashing of teeth that accompanied Squeeze's breakup last year can stop now. For their first "solo" record, Chris Difford (guitar, lyrics) and Glenn Tilbrook (guitar, vocals, music) have spun ten widely varied pop songs, each one a showcase for Difford's warmhearted, wise-guy lyrics and Tilbrook's fetching altar-boy tenor.
And the record sounds better than any of Squeeze's albums. It's hard to tell whether that's attributable to co-producer Tony Visconti or to E.T. Thorngren, the Sugar Hill Records vet who did the mix. Certainly, though, the addition of Keith Wilkinson's deep-bottomed bass and Debbie Bishop's snappy soprano backing vocals is a major improvement.
So why do I feel vaguely disappointed with this record? In part, it's because the LP lacks a track that would make a truly thrilling single (though there are two, "Picking Up The Pieces" and "Hope Fell Down," that come close). My mild discontent, though, concerns the very versatility and blitheness that have been the source of so much of the pair's well-earned popularity. Difford and Tilbrook occasionally seems like a record without a center, a surfeit of diversity with a dearth of direction.
"Action speaks faster than words," declares the album's initial track, a fusion of British pop and American rap that would be more successful if Tilbrook's Anglo vowels ("fah-stah") didn't de-funk the enterprise. Given that song's message, it's ironic that the tune's charging, horn-fueled end - like a wilder version of an Exile On Main Street outtake - leads right into the ornate verbosity of the single, "Love's Crashing Wave (sic)". Here, the talented Difford makes his cohort wrap his mouth around some tough lines: "Concocted rumours/By out-of-tuners/Are the must in love's concerto." Even the chorus' delightful zing can't quite redeem all of that verbiage.
More frequently, though, Difford displays his Barbara Pym-like facility for conjuring torrents of emotion - even the end of the world - in the jetsam of everyday life: the ash in the pages, the wax around the wick, the pen devoid of ink. In "Hurt the Girl," he weaves some intriguing ambiguity into a tale of an oft-heartbroken woman. "You can't hurt the girl," Tilbrook sings in the chorus, and it's not until the end that he adds a telling "...and not cry." And "Hope Fell Down" reveals Difford's sassy wit: "Your ship came in/And your fanfare sunk it," he notes in a track that approximates the style of Squeeze's lone stateside hit, "Tempted."
But Difford's dexterous style works best on "The Apple Tree," as he develops a series of harrowing images in a post-nuclear-holocaust scene: the abandoned house with the coffee still on, the fingernail scratches on the church door. "It's a silence you can see," he writes, "Hearing shadows behind me." Musically, Tilbrook is equal to the challenge. His swirling, eerie arrangement - reminiscent of "A Day In The Life" - skews the deceptively commonplace melody line and builds
the track to its dramatic conclusion.
That song aside, Difford and Tilbrook is chock full of Tilbrook's typically jaunty pop tunes. "Picking Up The Pieces" is one of his best; bright, enthusiastic and direct, the tune is enlivened all the more by a judiciously employed string section and by Bishop's chirping. The bounce of "Man For All Seasons" will remind some of East Side Story's "In Quintessence" and it's nice to hear Difford's low buzz of a voice at the end of the up-tempo throwaway "Wagon Train."
Tilbrook has always evinced an affection for the husky, world-weary tones of the saloon singer, even though his voice is laden with fresh-faced innocence. For "On My Mind Tonight", he adopts a tipsier tone - Paul McCartney at last call. The tune is almost a cocktail-lounge funk, and the singer languorously - and impotently - bemoans his lovelorn state: "The silence of the telephone doesn't bother me/But I wish that it would ring...I'm the man who would be king/The small hand's on the five". It's not entirely clear whether we're meant to be enthralled or appalled by the subject's inertia, though I hope it's the latter.
Characters, tones and themes seems (sic) to change from song to song on this record. And though this bunch used that technique on East Side Story, there's not quite enough urgency - or unity to the songs here. Because of that detached perspective, Difford and Tilbrook seem too distant from the action to tap into the emotional immediacy that even clever rock & roll relies on. No one's asking for an anthem - "I've Returned", from Sweets from a Stranger, proved that wasn't
quite their forte - but songs with the spirit of "Another Nail in My Heart" or the youthful wit of "Separate Beds" would allow their more eclectic work to be that much more effective.
Still, Difford and Tilbrook confirms that their decision to break up Squeeze was the correct one. It also shows that their songwriting talents are as formidable as ever. The problem is largely one of focus - that they couldn't decide on any other name for the album, or the band, indicates some indecisiveness over direction - and it's one that the pair should be able to resolve. "I've got so much on my plate", Difford and Tilbrook sing in "Man For All Seasons". Fair enough. Now finish up, boys.