“Reduced to a quartet by Jools Holland's departure for a career as a BBC television presenter” (Mason), ”keyboards are filled in by several people, including Berg, Matt Irving, and Steve Nieve. Bruce Hornsby shows up playing accordion (!), and Jerry Hey leads a horn section” (Alroy).
This gives “the group…a loose, R&B-inflected casualness” (Mason), but “producer Tony Berg, unfortunately, occasionally obscures that character by drowning the songs in strings and mass backing vocals (including special appearances by Michael Penn, Wendie Colter, and Spinal Tap's Michael McKean and Christopher Guest!)” (Mason). Under Berg’s guidance, “the band retreat to its soporific mid-80's synth-heavy sound, and with the raw song material being weaker than usual, the result is a disappointment” (Alroy), but the Difford/Tilbrook songs are mostly strong enough to withstand the onslaught” (Mason).
Play is “a bit pretentious in spots – the liner notes are written out as a theatre script, with the songs laid out as dialogue” Mason). It also masquerades as a concept album, albeit “loosely; this is less of a concept album than many reviews claimed at the time” (Mason). A “loose” concept album isn’t particularly a good thing; if you’re going to do a concept album, then do a concept album. Still, this “simple and low-key collection of songs charting…the dissolution of a love affair” (Mason) makes for “one of Squeeze's most mature and thoughtful albums” (Mason).
While it might be easy to compare this to “the misguided experiments of Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti and the naked chart ambitions of Babylon and On” (Mason) and declare this one a winner, Play isn’t necessarily a better album, it just sounds like its supposed to be. Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti was one of Squeeze’s most consistent albums and Babylon and On, while over-reaching in its attempt at pure pop, is still a catchier listen.
This is most on display from the very kick-off of the album. Satisfied, which is the obvious choice for the first single (although the U.K. baffling opted for Sunday Street instead), is the most memorable song on the album, but doesn’t come close to ranking with Squeeze’s best work.
Other catchy songs include Crying in My Sleep, Letting Go, The Truth, and Wicked and Cruel. All are a cut above the average song, but they aren’t a cut above the average Squeeze song.
Elsewhere on the album is the nice closing ballad There Is a Voice, but it is also largely pales when faced with superior efforts like “When the Hangover Strikes,” “Vanity Fair,” and even “Some Americans,” from previous albums.