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Westerberg's Somber Sounds

Alejandro Escovedo

No Replace Like Home: Paul Westerberg

On his second solo album, Paul Westerberg thinks about the future

By Gina Arnold

In rock terms, five years can be a pretty elastic notion. Five years between Michael Jackson or Guns n' Roses albums seems to go by in a flash, but the five years since the legendary Minneapolis band the Replacements broke up has felt like an eternity.

It's not so much that time itself has gone by slowly, but that, thanks to Nirvana, so much has happened in that time. Five years ago, the Replacements had trouble getting their last album, All Shook Down, heard on radio, despite the band's rabid following and giant critical reputation. Since then, however, a jillion bands that sound a whole lot like the Replacements have become downright mainstream. In fact, more than almost any other band in the last 12 years, the Replacements really invented and defined the sound--a sort of crunchy-guitary-gruff-voiced pop--that currently pervades mainstream radio.

It's a sound you hear almost everywhere, from Hootie & the Blowfish to the Goo Goo Dolls, from Counting Crows to Better Than Ezra to Nirvana itself. In fact, three of the four remaining members of the band--Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars and Slim Dunlop--have made wonderfully Replacements-style records in the last few years.

(Stinson will play the Cactus Club in downtown San Jose with his new band, Perfect, on June 1, and those who missed the Replacements the first time round may well want to check it out.)

But true 'Mats-heads are invariably more interested in the career of Paul Westerberg, lead singer, songwriter and the real soul of the Replacements. The irony of the whole saga is that now that Replacements-ness is finally salable, he, of all people--perverse to the core--is the one bandmember who has failed to come up a Replacementsy record.

Westerberg's second solo record, Eventually (Reprise), is probably not the record most Westerberg fans wanted to hear right now. That constituency would most likely have opted for an album full of sloppy rockers a la "Alex Chilton" or "My Little Problem." Instead, like 1993's disappointing 14 Songs, Eventually is heavy on the sappy ballads. What rock songs here are throwaway mid-tempo numbers; more often the album's timbre is somber.

Westerberg's talent, after all, has always been the unexpected chord change, the swift switching of emotional gears, the heartrending turn of phrase that characterizes great songwriting over the ages. He's not so much a great rock & roller as a musical purist, and if anything, his problem is that he is too effective for rock.

It's bad enough that Westerberg doesn't believe in the concept of true love; what's worse is that his world-weary disillusionment is all too skillfully conveyed. For example, on "MamaDaddyDid," the impressive album centerpiece, he's decided "not to have any part of wonderful live love/decided not to have any regrets/oooh, that's as good as it gets./Decided not to raise some mixed-up kid/just like my Mom and Daddy did."

Now, as fabulous as this song is--and it is unique and tuneful and heartbreakingly honest--it does not express a sentiment calculated to appeal to the general public. Neither does the text of "Love Untold," in which a couple of loners arrange for a date (both remembering to put on clean underwear) but somehow miss each other at the mall. The same is true for "Once Around the Weekend," a country-twinged number that recalls both "Here Comes a Regular" and "A Star Is Bored" in its aching description of loneliness.

Elsewhere on Eventually, Westerberg battles with questions of family, permanence and even aging. The lyrics are full of children--on "Mama Daddy Did," he decries parenthood, while "Hide n Seekin' "--akin to, but better than, "Nightclub Jitters"--is about a divorcee waiting for a weekend with her kids (possibly the woman in "Little Mascara" a few years down the line).

Both these songs mine a rare but distinct vein in Westerberg's repertoire--the Midwestern outsider, observing, distrusting, but ultimately pining for ordinary family life. (Think of "The Ledge," "We'll Inherit the Earth," even "Waitress in the Sky.") It's an unusual streak for an indie-rocker to exhibit, but in fact it fits in with Westerberg's current MO. Despite his flamboyant past, he's always been the lowest-key of all the mid-'80s rock stars.

Eventually does have a few clunkers on it. "Trumpet Clip" (which Westerberg recently told an interviewer, no doubt facetiously, is about the Unabomer) is nearly unintelligible, while on "You've Had It With You," Westerberg clocks in with one of the all-time worst lyrics ever: "Like Catherine the Great underneath a big horse/your sexual preference is me of course."

But when he's not being a smartass, Westerberg has the potential to be, well, the only word is perfect. And he is perfect on "Good Day," a gorgeous song played on piano, where he sings "A good day doesn't have to be a Friday/it doesn't have to be a birthday ... a good day is any day that you're alive." It is alleged to be his farewell to original Replacements' guitarist Bob Stinson, who died last year at the age of 35.

"Good Day" is the "Skyway" or "All Shook Down" of Eventually, a song so accomplished it reminds you how very deserved Westerberg's giant reputation really is. It is also the perfect answer to the song "Century," when Westerberg reflects on his own past, singing, "so long to the so-so years" and "I bit off more than I could chew/I sucked a while and spit it out." Judging from interviews, songs and reclusive behavior, this has been Westerberg's take on his past for quite some time--and certainly, now that Stinson has passed away, there's been little doubt that being in the Replacements was much less fun than it looked.

Still, it's part of his deep-seated perversity to continually express this sentiment in the face of a public's collective need to believe otherwise. Of course Westerberg's fans would like to deny utterly that he was so-so when he was drunk and riotous, because it bolsters up their own self-conception to think of the past as being another far more beautiful and carefree country.

But Westerberg has always refused to pander to that viewpoint. That being the case, one can see why his mellower, and certainly more depressing, take on the present annoys and even frightens those who can't face up to the disturbing implications of growing old. Eventually is certainly not calculated to make the hearts of his old fans flutter, but it does exhibit an artist with an unusual amount of courage to stick to his own darn guns.

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From the May 30-June 5, 1996 issue of Metro

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