Let’s get this over with right away: The Replacements’ Let It Be is the greatest indie-rock record of all time. Released at the end of Reagan’s first term, the record was a kind of unfunny joke about trying to be happy, the brainchild of an accidental existentialist and the three assholes he drank with most often. Let It Be was proudly, ridiculously amateur, a ragamuffin hodgepodge of guitar solos that started in the middle, gags of questionable taste, and songs that weren’t done being written. But the songs were too good for incompetence to be the point. The Replacements were cutting-edge populists, high school dropouts who sang about boners and flirting, about being gay (maybe) and Hank Williams-
lonesome. Even though there was no popular consensus as to Let It Be’s brillianceit sold squatfew people dared say that it sucked. Under the circumstances, that smelled a lot like victory.
Of course, pronouncements of immortality are highly subjective. You don’t need to tell that to Paul Westerberg, the author of all of Let It Be’s songs, save for the one he stole from Kiss. Westerberg’s coup was in making post-punk safe for quietly ambitious songwriters like himself. His band made lo-fi recordings in the early days because it was cheap and kind of funny, but noise wasn’t crucial to the songwriter’s aesthetic for long. The Replacements were uncannily adept at making punkish anarchy sound like classic rock. They weren’t interested in sounding avant-garde, and unlike their peers who were (Sonic Youth), the ‘Mats, as many called them, were not really scenestersthey coveted fans more than friends. The band loved the idea of being able to drink on the job, but their leader’s songs were about wanting more; acclaim only made him reluctant to settle for less.
Now that Westerberg’s career is almost as old as he was when it started, he’s turned settling for less into a kind of vocationaside from love, he writes almost exclusively about wishes unfulfilled. In fact, if grunge had lasted, he might still be a contender; Westerberg has never had a hit, but he did help popularize the victimhood-as-sainthood ideology that provided Billy Corgan, Eddie Vedder, and Kurt Cobain with plenty to talk about during interviews.
There’s no doubt that Westerberg has always had commercial potential; if he’d patented the Replacements’ pop-punk reduction, he could have bought a small airline with his royalties from the Goo Goo Dolls’ and Gin Blossoms’ albums alone. But the sentiments on his latest solo release, Suicaine Gratifaction, come from someone who believes that he’s squandered something much more significant than promise. “I’m past my prime/Or was that just a pose?” he sings early on, and the self-loathing never lets up: “I’m a bad idea whose time has come”; “Whatever makes you happy, I’m pretty sure it isn’t me”; “I’m the best thing that never happened.” If you’ve ever wondered what it might feel like to inherit the earth and then be stupid enough to lose it in Vegas, Paul’s your man.
Westerberg’s never been the type to cut himself slack, although it might do him some good personally if he could. Few singers come off as honest as Westerberg does when he’s writing from the gut, and Suicaine Gratifaction is the most personal record he’s made as a solo artist, if not his best. “It’s a Wonderful Lie” and “Self-Defense,” the two opening cuts, are near-classics; the first is a solo plucker, the second a piano ditty, and both are elevated by Westerberg’s beyond-wise rasp and the kind of easy, gentle melodies that he could probably write in the shower.
Westerberg has now made three solo albums, all forgettable in relation to his work as a Replacement, but he’s never totally hung his gift out to dry. Both 14 Songs and Eventually, Suicaine’s predecessors, were sessions, not inspirations, but each contained as much set-list-worthy material as it did filler. The same goes for Suicaine. Westerberg’s got no track record as a hit maker, but he is a pro. With the help of top-shelf studio hands, he is free to indulge the mainstream impulses he’s always had.
“Fugitive Kind” starts out starkpiano and vocal only for the first minuteand then it blows up, kind of like a Journey song. Dismiss it as corny if you want, but the love-loss tale is real to the guy singing it, and he’d have to beat back buyers if he ever put the hook up for sale in Nashville. Similarly, “Lookin’ Out Forever” is so shamelessly infectious it’s showoffy; you can almost hear producer Don Was telling Westerberg that his lyrics won’t fit the streamlined chorus, to which Paul responds by hitting “record” and proving that they do.
Westerberg’s probably too seasoned a songwriter at this point to serve up anything that sounds phoned-in; his problem is content. As I suspect is natural for most folks zeroing in on 40, he’s grasping for a theme to build a life around, and from listening to Suicaine Gratifaction, it seems Westerberg’s decided that irrelevance is the one he’s going with. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s fishing for material in a shallow pond; Dylan mined the same darkness on Time Out of Mind and subsequently remade his career. But the difference between the two Minnesotans is profound. Dylan took the proper path to sagehood, starting as a genius and then sticking around long enough so that it’s now taken for granted that he has something to say. Westerberg, on the other hand, started out as a sage and then went on to demonstrate, to himself, mostly, that it doesn’t take a genius to be one. He’s written some memorable songs as an adult, a few of which appear here, but almost none of them visceral. As a youth, he wanted answers; these days, he’ll settle for a career. Magic is for kids.CP