What the Cymbal Said: Squeeze, “Tempted” (1981)


My thought here, perhaps more questionable than usual but delightful to me nonetheless, is that a word of peak interest—like, oh, “Shit!”—can be stated with supreme power and aptness by an instrument playing a note rather than by a human voice using phonemes.

My exhibit is Squeeze’s “Tempted,” which is admirable for several major things—its simple snapping groove, its short-story-as-poem lyric (with that great segue I fumble for the clock/alarmed by the seduction), its tastefully soulful vocal by Paul Carrack (illogically but entertainingly interrupted by Glenn Tilbrook and Elvis Costello in the second verse). The hook I wish to point out happens in one second at the end of the third verse.

This last verse comes after the song might have ended already, as far as the lyrical content is concerned. If we feel a slight weariness now about going over the forfeiting of love one more time, that perfectly suits the emotional state of the romantic screw-up. He sings:

I bought a novel, some perfume, a fortune all for you
But it’s not my conscience that hates to be untrue
I asked of my reflection, “Tell me, what is there to do?”

We know there’s nothing to do. We’re stewing in the shame and futility, and at the exact moment when we have as much motivation as anyone ever has to say “Shit!” it’s said for us, except more piercingly and protestingly than human lips can say it, by Gilson Lavis’s cymbal (splash hi-hat, I guess). And not only is it said at that ripe moment after “Tell me, what is there to do?”, it’s said right away again, just as a Shit!-sayer really feels like saying “Shit!” over and over even though it just sounds more stupid. The cymbal, however, striking right on the big beats, doesn’t sound stupid. It’s totally called for.

“Tempted” verse 3

There is no funny Talk Box-type processing of the cymbal to make those notes sound like a certain word. The context does it.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Words and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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