I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music music site.
While the '70s were a decade where rock music became increasingly complex, much of the '80s was about simplifying music and returning to the pop rock roots of the early '60s. This was especially true in Britain, where bands seemingly focused more on creating catchy (and sometimes silly) singles than on complicated songs and concept albums. Synthpop bands like Erasure, Duran Duran and Culture Club prospered. So did pop bands that were more guitar-based, like The Smiths and Squeeze.
Although Squeeze was actually formed in the mid-1970s by singer/songwriter/guitarists Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, it wasn't until the late '70s and early '80s that they really hit their stride. Hailed in England as the successors to Lennon and McCartney, Difford and Tilbrook took their inspiration from 60's bands like the Beatles and the Kinks. After releasing a pair of albums that produced a number of successful singles in the UK, they released Argybargy in 1980 which gave them their first taste of success in the United States and Canada.
While some Squeeze fans would choose 1981's East Side Story as Squeeze's best album, I'd opt for Argybargy. For me, no one makes pop like the Brits, and Argybargy plays like an 80's new wave radio station's greatest hits collection. Filled with unusual song structures (sometimes the songs sound slightly inside out) and lyrics that tell simple stories, the album is 11 songs worth of pure pop heaven.
It starts out with a bang with two of the band's most popular songs, "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" and "Another Nail in My Heart." The first is a deceptively simple tale about life at a holiday beach resort, but it's memorable both for its catchy chorus and for the unforgettable images the lyrics give us of things like those "Two fat ladies" window shopping and buying a panda for their "sweet little niece", or of "Maid Marion on her tiptoe feet." And the music makes it sound like there might be something dark and dangerous going on behind the chalet, even if the only activity the lyrics will admit to are those mussels getting pulled from their shells. "Another Nail in My Heart", meanwhile, is one of those songs I was talking about that sounds a little inverted, especially in the chorus, where every line has its emphasis on the last word: "And here in the bar/The piano man's found/Another nail for my heart". We can't feel too sorry for the singer, however, as he's merely getting his comeuppance for cheating on his girlfriend.
Two of my favorite songs on the album are both tales of young love. "Vicky Verky" is the fast-paced story of a couple of middle schoolers who fall in love and get split up by their parents. She finds out she's pregnant, he gets sent to reform school, she has to get an abortion, but love triumphs in the end. In the hands of lesser lyricist than Difford it could come off as creepy, but somehow his words and Tilbrook's voice combine to make it kind of charming. Likewise "Separate Beds", a slower song about another young couple who run off together to stay at some kind of beachfront boarding house owned by a Mrs. Smith, is innocent and cute, as they spend their nights together but in separate beds.
There are a number of other worthwhile songs here, too. "If I Didn't Love You" was a moderate hit in the U.S. (especially in the northeast part of the country), and "Farfisa Beat" was also released as a single. And "Wrong Side of the Moon", the only song on the album where the music was written by keyboard player Jools Holland, is frivolous but fun, while "I Think I'm Go-Go" is weird and psychedelic.
The music is carried along throughout the album by Difford and Tilbrook's clean guitar lines, by Tilbrook's somewhat angelic voice, and by Holland's keyboards, which lean more toward traditional piano and organ sounds than they do toward the synthesizers that were popular with so many other '80s bands.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that one of the more enjoyable aspects of this album for an American like myself is Chris Difford's use of so many distinctively British words and phrases. The boy in "Vicky Verky" is sent off to borstal because he'd done his mother's meter; the girl in "Separate Beds" is resented by the boy's mother because she wouldn't peel the spuds; the coachdrivers in "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" stand about looking at local maps. These little gems proliferate throughout the album, adding flavor to the songs and making the characters and places being sung about feel more realistic.
In short, Argybargy is one of the finest British pop rock albums of the 80's. A full review of it on this music site has been long overdue.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars