Squeeze were never cool. One viewing of their atrocious videos proves that they could not compete in the image wars of the early 1980s. Their strength was always songwriting and as a result, their music has not dated as markedly as that of some of their peers. So the American release of their Greatest Hits, a chronological overview of their career up to 1990, arrives at a good time: though their best songs transcend quirky production values, the current wave of '80s retro will likely garner them many new fans.
Indeed, Squeeze's early, distinctly New Wave singles stand apart from the later ones by virtue of an abundant use of synthesizer effects. Though the instrumentation on "Take Me, I'm Yours" and "Goodbye Girl" ties them firmly to a time and place, the sheer quality of those songs reflects an exuberance and skill, impervious to age.
But the best and most timeless Squeeze songs tell stories, most of them bittersweet reflections on love and marriage. "Up The Junction" and "Labeled with Love" showcase this talent, merging Chris Difford's gift for literate compactness with Glenn Tilbrook's buoyant melodies. With "King George Street", Squeeze turned in perhaps their greatest story-song; one of their most memorable tunes provides the backdrop for a moving tale of alcoholism and separation.
Greatest Hits also contains plenty of Squeeze's trademark Beatle-esque lite-rockers. "Another Nail in My Heart" bounces along effortlessly; "Pulling Mussels (From a Shell)", rife with specifically -- and sometimes quizzically -- English imagery, virtually defines New Wave classicism.
Glenn Tilbrook's voice -- a smoother McCartney, if such a thing exists -- is a double-edged sword: it does well with witty narratives but runs into trouble on the more emotional fare. For example, the tear-jerker "Last Time Forever" winds up sounding measured and dull instead of heartfelt. Likewise, on the faux R&B of "Hourglass", he comes off as cute rather than clever. Only on the remarkable hit "Tempted", where Tilbrook duets with on-again/off-again member Paul Carrack, does the band pull off anything resembling soulfulness.
Available in the UK since 1994, Greatest Hits surpasses their previous collection, Singles: 45's and Under, only because it reproduces that record nearly verbatim, adding a few tracks from later albums and curiously omitting gems such as "If I Didn't Love You" and "853-5937". And unfortunately, it falls off in quality toward the end, as commercial obscurity drove the band to write simpler songs and more or less abandon their third-person narratives. For the most part, though, Squeeze operated squarely and expertly within the pop-rock boundaries that their tameness afforded them.
With songwriters as consistently good as Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, a single disc compilation cannot cover all the bases. These 20 tracks instead provide an admirable, but not definitive portrait of a nearly great band.