Few pop groups have shown such remarkably consistent musical progress as Squeeze has over the past three years. Despite a seemingly endless tour schedule and a hapless inability to hang on to a steady keyboardist, this spunky quintet has managed to evolve from the jerky punk-pandering of 1979's "Cool for Cats" to the sleek pop professionalism of last year's "East Side Story," which impressed critics and established a strong audience.
The recently released "Sweets From a Stranger" (A&M SP-4899) finds Squeeze capitalizing on that success by emphasizing smooth melodic simplicity paired with the lyrical expertise of songwriters Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrook. Comparison with their pop-composing forebears -- Lennon/McCartney, Gilbert & Sullivan -- applies lightly here, but with a caveat: In the press to flex their lyrical music, Difford and Tilbrook have lost the sense of perspective and empathy that gave "East Side Story" its claim to such comparison.
Like Elvis Costello (who produced "East Side" and does backing vocals on "Sweets"), Squeeze couches its most virulent observations in smartly danceable melodies, giving the tunes a double-edged acuity. Such is the case on "Out of Touch," "Black Coffee in Bed" and "Tongue Like a Knife." But the careful balance of fun and fury is tipped in these tunes by a mean-spiritedness that has crept into the works. The bitter overwhelms the sweet on "Out of Touch," whose protagonist manifests a cruel glee over a dying romance; similarly, it's hard to care about the main character of "Tongue," who treats his romantic object as some sort of dangerous quarry.
Almost to a song, Difford and Tilbrook have eschewed the compassion of "Labeled With Love" and the vulnerability of "Tempted" for a simplistic overview of love as containing boredom, perfidy and vengefulness, but little else.
The music doesn't make up for these problems, either, although it occasionally sparkles, as in the Paul Simon-ish phrasing of "When the Hangover Strikes" and a perverse Mary Poppins coda on "His House Her Home," the album's most guileful ballad. Generally, "Sweets" trades heavily on the Squeeze formula of modulation, slow triplets and tight harmonies, treading water musically while kicking up a lyrical eddy of romantic cynicism.
By contrast, Split Enz seems to have borrowed some of Squeeze's former humor and optimism for its seventh album, "Time and Tide" (A&M SP-4894). This quirky Australian quintet has sent out some confusing signals in the past, with the result that its chart sales have been sporadic and unpredictable. "True Colours," their 1980 release, gained some ground with the appealing international hit "I Got You," but the follow-up "Waiata," was met with indifference in the United States.
What's different about "Time and Tide" is its full-speed-ahead enthusiasm, its lyrical coherence and a musical ambition that's admirable even when it fails. Principal songwriters Neil Finn and Nigel Griggs evince a more positive view of their fellow man (and woman), as well as a clear-headed compassion whose scope includes evil and goodness without embracing either.
"Dirty Creature," the opening track, works equally well as a metaphor for sex, sin or the song-writing muse, while "Haul Away" is a self-mocking tribute to life's little agonies. In a less personal vein, "Giant Heartbeat," "Small World" and "Make Sense of It" assert the basic goodness of man, even in the face of global chaos.
Unlike "True Colours," whose one hit departed wildly in style from the rest of the tracks, all of this LP's songs are accessible -- even hummable. Further, there's an interesting use of noise on many of the cuts: animal-like bleats and groans, strange synthesizer scratchings. This sort of musical experimentation is a bit overused on "Time," and it doesn't always work, but it shows a willingness to stray from formula thinking.
The most enthralling tune on the album points up why Split Enz has the current edge on Squeeze.Titled "Hello Sandy Allen," it's a soul-searching paean to the "world's tallest woman," and it spells out an essential of good pop composition, i.e. taking a sympathetic, multi-dimensional reading on one's subjects.