Favorite Thing

More than any other group that emerged during the Amerindie boom of the early Eighties, the Replacements summarized everything that I had ever loved about rock and roll. R.E.M. was great, but I always found Michael Stipe to be an infuriatingly obtuse songwriter and I always wanted guitarist Peter Buck to play harder -- often his twelve-string jangle was just too tame. Husker Du was great, but the collective angst of vocalists/songwriters Bob Mould and Grant Hart was sometimes a bit much. Plus, there was no sense of unity or teamwork in their blinding punk-rock attack; I always got the impression that both Mould and Hart would've rather had their own bands to control. (And, in fact, I was right: The former is now exorcising his demons in Sugar, and the last time I checked, the latter was wandering in a pop-rock fog with Nova Mob.) Sonic Youth was okay, but I found it hard to get past their numerous pretensions, and Kim Gordon's flat, atonal voice drove me insane.

The Replacements, though, were perfect. Guitarist/vocalist Paul Westerberg wrote songs that defined my own fears, frustrations, and insecurities so well it was as if he had been hovering over my shoulder, watching me fumble through teendom and taking notes as I stared in terror at adulthood looming in the distance. The Replacements were scared, too, and nervous, and vulnerable, and they got drunk when they wanted to make the bad shit go away for a while. Here was a band that eschewed the boho aesthetic of the arty postpunk elite in favor of the trash-guitar verities of Exile-era Rolling Stones and Bollocks-era punk, as well as embracing the Anglo-pop fetishism of Big Star. And the band wasn't afraid to own up to a fondness for Seventies rock gods Ted Nugent and KISS (both favorites of mine since fifth grade). I happened upon the 'Mats (short for Placemats, one of the band's several pseudonyms) in 1983, after their second album Hootenanny had been out about six months. It was a spotty record then, and it's spotty thirteen years later; their first album, 1981's Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, offers a more focused sampling of their melodic, punky pop. But Hootenanny's best moments -- "Color Me Impressed," "Treatment Bound," "Within Your Reach" -- were full of longing and doubt, heartache and confusion, and the record set the pattern for every 'Mats album that followed over the next seven years.

Scattered across those five albums (Let It Be, Tim, Pleased to Meet Me, Don't Tell a Soul, All Shook Down) are some of rock and roll's greatest anthems of emotional turmoil, along with some compassionate and sensitive open-heart confessions: "Unsatisfied," "Answering Machine," "Can't Hardly Wait," "I Will Dare," "Left of the Dial," "I'll Be You," "Someone Take the Wheel," "Here Comes a Regular," and "Swingin' Party."

I read somewhere years ago that true love dies hard. I don't think it ever dies, though, and that's why I have a hard time falling in line behind music critics across the country to blast Eventually, Westerberg's second album since he broke up the Replacements six years ago. I can't say it's a great album, because it's not: Compared to the expert essays on fear and self-loathing he wrote in the 'Mats, even the best songs on Eventually are undeniably slight, and none of them rock with the urgency and abandon of his old stuff. Instead, his new songs are mannered, acoustic-based constructions set to graceful midtempos not unlike those on All Shook Down, the 'Mats' 1990 swan song. But like his 1993 solo debut 14 Songs, and like the songs he's sprinkled on soundtracks such as Singles and Friends, Eventually offers a striking and evocative portrait of who Paul Westerberg is today A what's on his mind, what he's been thinking about and obsessing over. And years after my first encounter with Westerberg and his passel of neuroses, I still care about him. I still want to hear what he has to say.

Why? I'm not completely sure. Maybe it's because the things he's always chewed on have been the same things I've always chewed on. Or because the things he's been saying through the years have held an almost uncanny relevance to the things I've been feeling. Or maybe it's simply because a lot of what attracted me to Westerberg in the first place is still there in his music. Not all of them, mind you. I miss the squall of 'Mats guitarist Bob Stinson (who died last year after a long-time addiction to drugs and alcohol), and I miss the ramshackle enthusiasm drummer Chris Mars and bassist Tommy Stinson brought to Westerberg's songs. (Stinson makes a bass-and-trombone cameo, by the way, on Eventually's "Trumpet Clip," the weakest cut on the disc.) I miss the raw, naked pain in Westerberg's voice, which way back when lent an unnerving sense of vulnerability to songs such as "Never Mind," "Left of the Dial," and "Answering Machine." And sometimes I miss the primal punk-rock energy of the 'Mats first album, on which Westerberg's writing flirted with genius and on which the band simply burned.

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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