Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Album Review: The Knowledge by Squeeze

Just over two years ago, Squeeze released Cradle to the Grave, which also served as the marvellous soundtrack to the BBC series of the same name. Prior to that, their last release of original material was in 1998. So one could argue that this is the first album of uninhibited songs in almost twenty years.

Now that's not to say Cradle to the Grave was without merit. It was a great piece. But here, we are truly back to Squeeze at their core. Even the cover itself somehow harkens back to the band's earlier days, while truly looking nothing like any of their earlier album artwork. 

The first two tracks on the album have served as the released singles so far. My favorite of the two is "Patchouli," a melancholy tune of remembering a love lost. The intro blends a late '60s sunshine/power pop vibe with some mild country sounds before heading into the vocals. "Innocence in Paradise," the album opener, begins more roughly, but rolls into a soft desert-ready psychedelic track about isolation. Difford's low backing vocals act as the audio shadow of the lone traveller. Both songs are both nostalgic and lonely, but "Innocence" definitely conjures up a visual.

On the third track, Squeeze announce that they are getting political. "A&E" (that stands for "accident and emergency" for those not from the U.K.) tells the story of a man taking his injured wife to the hospital and waiting "all night just to be seen" while "The nurses looked completely drained//but nice as pie and so composed." The narrator goes on to say that he's while he's not a politician, he can see that something is wrong with the healthcare system, and that "Mental health our doctors know//Is underfunded and unexposed." It's certainly an unusual subject matter for a song, but somehow makes the topic sit well inside the song without sounding contrived or stilted.

The political theme continues throughout the album, and is revisited, on "Rough Ride." The song is presented almost as a mini-musical, beginning with a chorus, and separating verses between Glenn Tilbrook and an operatic singer (Cara McHardy). Tilbrook bemoans the classist system, with particular sympathy for the young generation, for whom "Affordable housing [is] an unobtainable dream." The narrator also sings the very resonant line "My children are working all the hours they can//to live in this city we love//But they can't imagine a life like I've had//Either you're rich or it's tough." These verses are contrasted by verses from the opera singer who makes generalizations, and seems to represent the established, out-of-touch wealth. The choice of the opera singer is a smart choice artistically, although musically, it falls to the grating side as it attempts to fit where it doesn't belong. If one can look at it as an art piece rather than a pop song, one could argue that the point is that these ideas don't mesh well, creating the divide in our society.

Possibly the most overtly political message for Americans comes on "The Ones," in which the narrator complains that "Fake news keeps on coming." The narrator continues to discuss how misinformation is shaping our divided societies, a truth that had been becoming more and more evident in the real world. A meaningful sentiment from "Rough Ride" is echoed, "The young are working harder//for less than they deserve." While these are undeniably world issues, I can't help but feel that "The Ones" is as strong a take on American problems as "A&E" is on British ones. But "The Ones" is not without hope, that "the best is still to come" and recommends that we "Take care//Of the ones we love." This is all presented in one of the catchiest tunes on the album, and one of the stronger tracks, which very much beckons to the sound of classic Squeeze without sounding stale.

Another song that rings relevant with the current headlines is "Final Score," a track about a boy who was molested by his coach coming to terms with the abuse years later, and the coach unable to reconcile the thoughts of his sins. Pedal steel wails throughout the tune, giving it spooky country vibes. It's not the strongest piece on the album, but it does tell a powerful and unfortunately not unusual story in our modern world. 

Album closer "Two Forks," echoes "The Ones" seemingly in reference to a domestic partnership this time. The opening line is almost word for word the same, but the sound and subject matters of the songs are completely different. "Two Forks" is about the divide between two people, now separated, who were once close.

Between the politically-charged songs, there are a number of stories being told. "Every Story," sounding every bit the classic Squeeze tune, tells the story of a small community in which gossip spreads like wildfire. Indian harmonium and celesta give "Every Story" the feel of Squeeze circa the early '80s, as does the subject matter. 

On the other hand, "Please Be Upstanding" tells a story that may never have told in the band's earlier years, of a man sinking into depression, possibly fearing his wife is cheating, and learning that he has cancer. The full story is a little unclear, but the raw fear the man feels is exposed throughout, which provides a unique perspective. 

"Albatross" might be the most fun The Knowledge offers us, telling the tale of an old record collector. Bongos separate the song from the fray, but so does the playful nature. The method of storytelling on this particular track reminds me of one of Nick Hornby's characters on Lonely Avenue.  

All the songs on this album have merit. I am surprised by how many are openly political, not just because Squeeze have never been the most political band, but because of the perspective they have on politics. I interviewed Chris Difford earlier this year for Rebeat and I asked if he thought he could still accurately portray the working class, since he's been a musician for so long. Difford said "As one grows older, it’s harder to write in that style." But in listening to The Knowledge, it's clear that though his perspective on life has changed, Difford is not out-of-touch with the young working class. He and Tilbrook now look to them as their children rather than themselves, but they still recognize the struggles. The storytelling has now moved on to be about men their own age, but this keeps the perspectives as fresh as ever. 

The Knowledge is definitely well worth a listen if you're a fan of Squeeze. And if you've never heard of them before, I'd say it's still worth a listen, because the album speaks for itself without any knowledge of the band's earlier work. 

Squeeze are a pop/rock band from London, England.

The Knowledge is out now and can be purchased here.

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