Here’s the back story: I had just graduated from college in the summer of 1991, I was in Connecticut. Girlfriend was in Ohio. I packed up everything I had and boarded a train to move to Ohio to be with her. But she was under tremendous pressure from her parents to break it off, and by the time I arrived, their smear campaign was clearly working. I rarely saw her, even though we worked in the same mall. I got a job at a record store, and one of the promo CDs that had just arrived was Squeeze’s new album Play. I had always liked the band but never bought any of their records. However, the local modern rock station (97X, holler) was giving it some support, so after hearing a couple songs I liked, I took it home with me and played it in the car of my friend Ed, who’s the only person I know who likes Squeeze more than I do. I vented all of my frustrations to him about the ridiculous predicament I put myself in as we blasted “House of Love,” because damn it, I was living that song. She was full of lies and boredom, a very acidic tongue waggled in her head, we seemed the best of friends, life had just begun…but on the roof a tile began to slip. The house of love caved in, and that was it. Fuck.
I moved to Boston at the end of the summer. Got an apartment with my brother and two awesome women. Tried to make sense of it all. And God love Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, they were there for me. The booklet for Play is formatted to resemble, you guessed it, a play, and while there is a theme of loss and recovery running through several of the songs, it would be overstepping to call it a concept album. Opening track “Satisfied” describes a young couple in the honeymoon phase of their relationship. From there, it gets dicey, and quickly. “Crying in My Sleep” has a verse that was my mantra for a good six months:
“Breaking up is breaking my heart, is showing me the door
But if I get it open, I’ll discover that there’s much more to life than this
As I hit the wall with the full force of my fist”
Not everything on Play was written, as Paddy McAloon once sang, to one of the broken. “The Day I Get Home” is about a weary traveler, while “Gone to the Dogs” is about a guy who spends his days at the track so he doesn’t have to face up to his loneliness. (All right, that guy is broken, but the focus is on him, not the memory of someone else, and the song’s one of the more upbeat tunes on the album.) “Sunday Street” has a mile-wide sing-along chorus, and “Cupid’s Toy” is about a guy who hits on girls in bars but has no feelings for anyone…until he meets The One. It’s the sweetest moment here.
From there, though, the album is a lyrical minefield. “Letting Go” is about the couple who are still together despite their best days being long behind them. “Walk a Straight Line” has the guy literally pleading for help to sort through a rough patch together. “Wicked and Cruel” is just that, with Difford sharpening the claws, saying that “when I die, I’ll return as a housefly and land upon her wall / Just to see who she’ll end up with, if it’s anyone at all.” Clearly written from the Stage 2 (Anger) portion of the recovery process.
Which brings us to “There Is a Voice,” the album’s final song and the only one written from Stage 5 (Acceptance). The song’s chorus of “Each day is a night, then your lifetime is gone” admittedly looks silly on paper, but listening to Difford and Tilbrook sing it with that one-of-a-kind octave-splitting vocal alchemy turns it into gospel. When Tilbrook speaks of how “Each day’s a hope, each day’s a prayer, that I’ll rebuild, that I’ll repair / The parts of me that may have slipped deep in my soul, when I lose my grip,” combined with that Beatle-esque climbing/falling chord progression and the Elizabethan string arrangement, the lyrical simplicity suddenly strikes a Zen-like chord of clarity.
What’s fascinating in retrospect is that Play was the first album – and, as it turned out, the last album – the band delivered to their then-new label Reprise. Yes, modern rock was making tremendous inroads, and Squeeze were grandfathered onto playlists as pioneers of the genre, but their last album, 1989’s Frank, was considered a big-time disappointment after the band had finally cracked the American Top 40 not once but twice with their previous album, 1987’s Babylon and On. That they would deliver an album so anti-commercial, so mature, especially after Reprise had ponied up for Tony Berg, one of the hottest producers working at the time, to man the boards, bordered on professional suicide.
Which, of course, it was. While the band managed to rack up one Top 10 (“Satisfied”) and one Top 20 hit (“Crying in My Sleep”) on the modern rock charts, Play did not shift the units their new overlords were expecting, and the band were promptly dropped. However, within the Squeeze fan base, and the band itself, Play is regarded as one of their best albums. Last summer, I finally had the pleasure of interviewing Glenn Tilbrook, where I admitted that Play got me through some shit. Tilbrook was stunned. It turns out, someone else had told him the exact same thing, and he seemed amazed that the album had struck such a strong emotional chord with two different people. What I wish I had said was, “No, Glenn. Only two people have been able to tell you this directly. There are others, I assure you.”