Danny Baker makes little apology for the lack of authentic grit and misery in Going To Sea In A Sieve, his memoir of growing up in 1970s Bermondsey: “What was our life like in the noisy, dangerous and polluted industrial pock mark [in] one of the capital’s toughest neighbourhoods?” asks the ever-affable broadcaster. “Utterly magnificent, and I’d give anything to climb inside it again.” Now that the book is being brought to vivid brown-and-orange life in the BBC series Cradle To Grave, who better to provide original songs for the soundtrack than Baker’s old schoolmate Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook?
Since their most recent reunion in 2007, Squeeze have released Spot The Difference – a 2010 album of classic songs re-recorded – and an EP of new songs, but Cradle To The Grave is the first full album of (mostly) new material to emerge in 17 years. Tilbrook initially contacted Baker after reading his book with a view to working on a musical; what has emerged instead is an album that complements a television series, but works just as well without it.
Difford and Tilbrook, both clearly back on something approaching the top of their respective games, write in a variety of styles here, echoing the grab-bag approach that worked so well on East Side Story. The excellent title track has vamping ukulele and piano and gospel backing vocals, while Nirvana is a middle-aged disco shuffle; Top Of The Form tips a hat to former producer Elvis Costello and the stand-out Sunny – a re-write of Tommy from 2012’s Packet Of Four EP – marries an Eleanor Rigby string arrangement to schools programming analogue synthesiser.
But above all, these sound like Squeeze songs: back together but still an octave apart, Difford’s gruff and conversational brogue is, as always, perfectly complemented by Tilbrook’s breezy and boyish tones, almost untarnished by the intervening years. A rather underrated guitarist – bands of their era not necessarily being looked to for technical chops – Tilbrook’s playing is also undimmed by the passage of time: his solo on Happy Days in particular is all jazzy chromatic runs and country twang, like the offspring of Larry Carlton and Carl Perkins.
Taking situations encountered by the young Baker and his family as starting points, Difford tackles these teenage reminiscences with characteristic wit and feeling. There’s awkward fumbling at a party in Only 15 and the agony of schooldays in Top Of The Form (“the teachers all loathed me”), while Sunny basks in the liberation that music seemed to offer; only Haywire, detailing the protagonist’s pubescent (ahem) ‘private time’ borders on too much information. Meanwhile, Nirvana is an affecting look at the parents left behind when the children leave the nest, unsure how to spend their new found freedom: “He quibbled with ambition, she fell into a rut.”
As implied by Baker’s fond recollection, this is mostly nostalgia without the ache, the madeleine dunked in a steaming mug of Bovril. While the penultimate Everywhere hints at dissatisfaction with where life has led (“The debris of my life will never let me sleep”), the closing Snap, Crackle and Pop is optimistic (“I’ve been giving my past away … Now I’m living with the best of me”). Warm, melodic and acutely observed, Cradle To The Grave is a convincing return from two of our very finest songwriters.