[29 July 2008]
As the wordsmith half of Difford-Tilbrook, the crack songwriting duo that formed the nucleus of crack new wave popsters Squeeze, Chris Difford specialized in offbeat non-sequiturs, wry metaphors and self-effacing melancholy. The always understated UK press anointed the duo “the new Lennon-McCartney”, and while that is an obscene hyperbole, Squeeze did create a handful of durable pop classics still heard regularly today (“Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)”, “Goodbye Girl”, “Tempted”). Despite this, and an unexpected 2007 reunion, the Squeeze catalog remains woefully unavailable in the U.S., save a couple insufficient best-ofs.
Fresh off reconvening with his old compadres, a miracle even VH1’s Bands Reunited couldn’t work, Difford has crafted only his second solo album, the follow-up to 2003’s I Didn’t Get Where I Am. The Last Temptation of Chris (the title a pun not just on Scorsese, but Squeeze’s biggest hit) aims to be a distinguished aging man’s testament, in similar scope to Nick Lowe’s 2007 minor masterpiece At My Age. Difford is fittingly introspective and refreshingly frank about the issues facing a fiftysomething fellow, one with moderate levels of fame and fortune, and talent to spare.
Chris Difford will never be a great singer, but it’s clear he’s worked to refine his voice. Gone is the Cockney monotone that sang “Cool for Cats” (still among the most hilarious songs about male-female courtship, and the venereal diseases that come with, ever penned), and provided low-end back-up to Tilbrook’s buoyant tenor. His Squeeze voice had a quirky, drunk bloke singing along at the pub charm to it. It wouldn’t fit these more sophisticated compositions, but it’s missed all the same.
Difford’s somber reflections on youth, death and the life in between are generally affecting portraits of the artist as middle-aged malcontent. In the elegant “My Mother’s Handbag”, Difford reminisces about his childhood, poignantly confessing “I used to play beneath the table / While all her friends would pray / I was destined for the life of Riley / Not for the tears of Johnnie Ray.” Like most of us, Difford ended up somewhere in between, and many of his songs grapple with this inescapable middle ground. His once reliable vices now produce guilt and consequences. “Fat As a Fiddle” finds the food-loving Difford fretting, somewhat unreasonably given his own none too pudgy figure, over age-induced weight gain, stating “Now I have tits just like my mom”. “On My Own I’m Never Bored” proudly and excitedly defends masturbation; it’s the funniest song here, and by no coincidence, the most fun. He can inhabit viewpoints other than his own: both “The Gates of Eden” and “Battersea Boys” are finely rendered character studies, while “Reverso” is a lengthy, detailed account of a reverse vasectomy. Other tracks, like “Julien and Sandy”, work for depth and beauty, but achieve mere dullness instead. And “Good Life” is not only a treacly yawn; it’s downright nauseating.
For setting melody to Difford’s lyrics, co-writer Boo Hewerdine is no Tilbrook, as he prefers austere, subtle melodies to instantaneous pop hooks. The tunes are neither insistent nor ingratiating; on some songs, they’re barely there. In both composition and execution, the Difford-Hewerdine collaborations mirror (though pale in comparison to) the later work of another thickly accented, constantly underrated songwriting team: Forster and McLennan. The glistening, finely honed arrangements, recalling British folk and Tin Pan Alley, are reserved and inoffensive, sometimes too studied and sterile for their own good. Even for an album depicting the perils of advancing age, the music is defiantly old-fashioned: the songs often seem older than the singer.
But this is a lyricist’s solo album, and the words are intended to be center stage. With that in mind, one wishes the words were better, or at least more interesting. Like Lowe, Difford’s youthful penchant for verbal quips and snide language is minimized in favor of a more straightforward approach. But where Lowe remained acerbic in the face of time’s ravages, it appears the vinegar has been drained from Difford’s pen, refilled instead with too much sentimental drivel. His words are overly expository, as though he’s struggling to tell rather than show. The track-by-track liner notes are redundant and unnecessary, as these lyrics are hardly elliptical or cryptic enough to demand explication. Furthermore, Difford often gets tripped up on clunky lines like “inside she was chicken soup” and “her fingers are made of cod”, which is possibly absurdist whimsy, but more likely lazy attempts to flesh out the rhyme scheme. Perhaps Tilbrook could sell such linguistic nonsense, but Difford cannot.
Thus, Last Temptation barely achieves the modesty for which it strives. Just because his songs effectively confront feelings of mediocrity is no excuse for so many to embody it. It’s a decent effort, but too drab to outshine Difford’s previous work, his previous band or the myriad other graying songwriters’ meditations on mortality currently crowding the iTunes store.