Favorite Thing

But Westerberg isn't the booze-guzzling, self-destructive kid he was fifteen years ago; he's a clean and sober 36-year-old, on the wagon for the last six of those years. The alcohol-fueled camaraderie of the Replacements helped kill Bob Stinson and it drove Mars out of the group in 1989. ("It took a lot to be one of the boys in that band," he reflected in Rolling Stone upon his departure.) For the past six years Westerberg has been quietly distancing himself from his old band's chaotic past and inebriated legacy. Praised as much for their alcoholic unpredictability in concert as for Westerberg's aching and earnest confessions of insecurity and angst, the Replacements earned a following that seemed to thrive on the group's inability to get its shit together. Every blown note, every stumbling cover, every song that staggered to a cacophonous anticlimax A every failure was celebrated by the band's audience with a drunken toast to incompetence. The result was perhaps the most dysfunctional artist-audience relationship ever to exist. Certainly there was a time when I felt my own inclination toward self-destruction was, to a point, vindicated, if not justified, by the Replacements' missteps and fuckups. Not the most healthy mutation of rock and roll fandom.

But while Westerberg has cleaned himself up, he's hardly a well-balanced, perfectly functioning adult. There's an undercurrent of pain and pathos A a sense of opportunities missed and potential squandered A running throughout Eventually that links it thematically to the Replacements' last few albums. "Love Untold," the first single from Eventually, is a maudlin tale of, well, love untold, punctuated by Westerberg's choked delivery and set to a tune that closely resembles Don't Tell a Soul's "Achin' to Be." "You've Had It With You" offers a shot of rage and self-deprecation that opens with the sterling couplet, "I've had it with the friend who uses me/To open doors like I was a skeleton key." Three songs in particular A "MamaDaddyDid," "These Are the Days," and "Once Around the Weekend," each stained in melancholy A would fit perfectly on the acoustic-based All Shook Down, the album that mapped out the course Westerberg would navigate on his own. And if the bleak, hungover ruminations in "Hide N Seekin'" were included on Let It Be, it would most certainly be hailed as a masterful outpouring of despondence.

Instead, the song is merely a highlight from an album that will very likely fall through just about every marketing crack imaginable. Today's Paul Westerberg is too soft for most first-string 'Mats fans; way too smooth for the Rancid-Green Day brigade; too ragged for VH1 or AAA radio; and unworthy of the classic-rock tag, even though he's been touring and recording for the better part of twenty years. (After all, you gotta have hits to make it as a classic rocker, and the closest Westerberg has come was back in 1989 when the Replacements' "I'll Be You" hit the 51 spot on the Billboard singles chart.) Most likely Westerberg will wind up in the same commercial vacuum as Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and other celebrated songwriters who never learned how to turn critical praise into cold, hard sales.

It's a fate he doesn't deserve, if only because there are so few people out there who can really write modest but clever pop songs about the kind of stuff that keeps you awake at night A the kind of turmoil and frustration that infests Eventually's best songs, from the anguished "Good Day" to the graceful acceptance of "Angels Walk." Thirteen years after our first encounter, Westerberg's emotional dilemmas still mirror my own.

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