For two guys who specialize in harmony, Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook - Britain's catchiest, cleverest songwriting team since Lennon met McCartney - have a long, broken history as Squeeze. But they're very much back together and are playing a two-man acoustic-only show Saturday night at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood.
They've been an on-and-off act since rising to prominence in the late 1970s and early '80s, with wry, wrenching pop albums such as Cool for Cats, Argybargy, and East Side Story. That hit catalog - "a legacy worth maintaining," according to Difford - includes soulful, MTV-charting singles such as "Tempted" and more British wit than a Noël Coward play.
"We worked hard those initial years," Tilbrook says. "We did pretty good stuff most of the time."
The pair first ended Squeeze in 1982. Ostensibly a duo, they made 1983's Difford & Tilbrook, which was Squeeze in all but name, as the longtime friends are the band's only constants. The songwriters (Difford, lyrics; Tilbrook, music) reignited Squeeze in 1985, shut it down in 1999, and headed into solo careers until 2007, when the pair reunited for tours.
"We had to learn to trust each other again, have confidence in ourselves," Tilbrook says. Thus came Cradle to the Grave - the first new album of Squeeze originals since 1998's Hourglass, and the present tour.
On the phone at separate times from Chicago, Difford and Tilbrook speak frankly about Squeeze past and present.
"I thought our second period was more thoughtful and evolutionary than our first, but less exciting," says Tilbrook, ruminating over the 1990s. "Didn't spot that at the time."
Yes, they got on each other's nerves. Yes, differences became creative. Both did their solo things, Difford alone, Tilbrook with his band the Fluffers.
Going solo meant personal satisfaction but smaller audiences.
"Not to sound pretentious - you do it for yourself, for the art," Tilbrook says with a laugh.
Difford likens his solo writing to that of "performing without the safety net of Squeeze, very rewarding."
It was legacy that brought them together again in 2007, to play Squeeze hits live. "We're the keeper of the keys of our very own museum," Difford says.
Tilbrook wasn't certain. "I was very cautious, didn't want to do it, really," he says. "It was only seeing Brian Wilson and his band that made me realize there is a way of honoring your past properly, so Squeeze began curating."
Solo careers taught each man what Difford calls "confidence in your own abilities." They had been Squeeze since they were teens in Deptford, England, in 1974. But, after an initial period when they avoided the thought of new songwriting, the confidence bolstered by going solo led them at last to sit down and start writing again - and it all felt fresh.
Cradle to the Grave sounds just like a classic Squeeze album, with hints of the Beach Boys and Todd Rundgren.
"It had to stand on its own - which it did - and started to get good, the writing," Tilbrook says of the first songs, such as "Sunny" and the new album's title track. Difford throws in the emotionally rewarding "Only," which happens to be about his marriage.
They did change up some things. "In Squeeze, at first, I had always been content - pleased, really - to just compose music," Tilbrook says. "Doing the solo thing, however, I was pushed to write lyrics, and now that the genie is out of that bottle, it won't return." Difford says he's pleased to share all songwriting duties with his longtime partner and that Tilbrook is good at making Difford's lyrics into something suitable for the voice.
"We were both apprehensive about a new album, but now that we're past it," Difford says, "we're smitten with what we've created, have a new, exhilarating vision of who we are as writers, and want to do more. That's so much different than who we were 20 years ago."
8 p.m. Saturday at Scottish Rite Auditorium, 315 White Horse Pike, Collingswood.