The Replacements' final show at Chicago's Grant Park in 1991 wasn't exactly a blowout, or even the pull-out-the-stops performance the band's fans might have wanted.

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Album of the Year

Bringing it all back home: Paul Westerberg's Stereo/Mono

The Replacements' final show at Chicago's Grant Park in 1991 wasn't exactly a blowout, or even the pull-out-the-stops performance the band's fans might have wanted. Nonetheless, there was the clear sense of an ending.

Frontman Paul Westerberg altered and twisted the band's familiar lyrics, as usual—the funniest parts of the group's shows often emerged from Westerberg's sharp wordplay—but that night the ad libs were centered mostly around the evening's finality. "You'll never have to hear it again!" he bleated over an instrumental break; even in the opening number, he announced the end by replacing the title "I Will Dare" with the words "one last time!" in its opening chorus. An era was plainly drawing to an close, even if Westerberg in particular seemed determined to poke a hole in the Replacements' already ballooning mythos.

Long gone were the days when the 'Mats approached their live gigs like Irish wakes, drinking heroically before they took the stage to drape heartfelt emotions in boozy enthusiasm. Beer-soaked shows which consisted of half original material and half Bachman-Turner Overdrive covers were now committed to history. (An acquaintance once referred to that period's gig as "the best and the worst show I ever saw"—an encomium which, one suspects, the band would perversely savor.) In the space of scarcely a decade the Replacements had grown from hard-core purists into what Plato knew college radio could be, in its purest form—brainy, smartass, sweetly melodic, just irresponsible enough to court constant flameout, and always trusting in its heart before its head.

The Replacements were fiercely loved by the kids who followed, and when Westerberg officially went solo his harshest critics were inevitably his former disciples. Reaction to 1993's 14 Songs set the tone for the next decade's appraisal: A collection of Stonesey rockers leavened with gentle mood pieces, the record was seen as a step away from Westerberg's raucous, goddamn-it-all gutter poetry toward calm domesticity, a move few of the Replacements' notoriously unhinged fans were willing to make with him.

While next-gen songwriters yanked whole pages from his biography and notebook—there's simply no Ryan Adams or Green Day without Westerberg—the man himself seemed, like the Bob Dylan of the early '70s, always in competition with his younger, more inchoate self. Like Dylan, Westerberg had been pegged as one of the smartest and most important songwriters of his generation. And, like Dylan, he'd been widely relegated to history's dustbin when he no longer seemed connected to his own past, or even to rock's present.

So when all the world's tried to remake your Highway 61, what's left to do?

Answer: Stereo/Mono, and the coppery scent of Paul Westerberg's blood all over its tracks.

IT SHOULDN'T HAVE come as a surprise that Paul Westerberg would have a hard time escaping the long shadow of his former band. After all, he chose to begin his solo career under the banner of Replacements; the group's 1990 swan song, All Shook Down, was a Westerberg album in all but name. Coming from the newly sober Westerberg, the muted, world-weary disc was the sound of a man waking up after a decade-long bender. While All Shook Down was viewed as something of a disappointment at the time—it was not the raucous, Viking funeral that many had hoped for the Replacements finale—recent critical appraisals have been kinder, hailing the album as a touchstone for the alt-country movement and the inspiration to artists like Whiskeytown and early Wilco.

Though it arrived only a few years later, 14 Songs was released into an entirely different world—specifically one of post-grunge, post-Nirvana proportions. To many, the Replacements were a seminal influence on the new crop of alternative acts taking over the airwaves in the early '90s; if Neil Young was their godfather, then Westerberg was certainly their drunk uncle (a fact confirmed when Cameron Crowe asked the latter to write songs for his grunge love letter, Singles).

Indeed, many tried to draw obvious comparisons between Westerberg and Kurt Cobain—each hailed as the great white saviors of rock in their day. The glaring difference, of course, was that Cobain courted success ruthlessly, while Westerberg chose to sabotage his at nearly every turn. The only real connection between the two was that Cobain was following a path that Westerberg had begun paving a decade earlier. Emerging from the morass of early '80s hardcore, Westerberg was first among American post-punk songsmiths to truly embrace melody and earnest sentiment in his songs ("Within Your Reach," "Answering Machine," "Here Comes a Regular")—something that made it acceptable for the alt and indie artists who followed to openly wear their hearts on their tattered flannel sleeves.

Though 14 Songs was a fairly consistent collection, it began a trend of confusing listeners—especially latecomers to the 'Mats, fledgling alt-rock fans just discovering the power trash of Sorry Ma and Hootenanny—still looking to Westerberg as some sort of hard-rocking, hard-living Dionysus.

The folk-jangle of 1996's Eventually saw Westerberg further violate expectation. Judging from songs like "Good Day" and "MamaDaddyDid," his touchstones no longer seemed to be the Stones and Heartbreakers, but rather Jackson Browne, Ricky Lee Jones, and a host of other West Coast softies—artists whom Westerberg had long (if quietly) admitted admiring. In interviews around this time, he also went to great lengths to subvert his youthful punk image, playing up his love for John Coltrane and suggesting that as he grew older he lost his appreciation for the Sex Pistols.

Predictably, this smacked of heresy to many diehards. Their hazardous hellion had seemingly turned into a middle-of-the-road troubadour, and many wondered aloud if he'd completely lost his edge, betrayed his roots. More churlish observers suggested that Westerberg's supposedly diminished muse would perhaps be improved if he began drinking again—a notion only slightly more stupid than it was cruel.

If his audience was grumbling, Westerberg was not far behind in his dissatisfaction. Working with a succession of name producers at his record company's request, the resulting solo efforts evinced a great deal more polish than he was frankly comfortable with. At the same time his '93 and '96 tours were marked by something the 'Mats totally lacked: professionalism. Payback, Westerberg said, for all those years of drunken, shambolic shows. But playing bandleader never suited him, and Westerberg quickly grew tired of getting on stage with his "paid companions"—as he sardonically dubbed them—to trundle out old Replacements warhorses.

Worse still were the promotional hoops he was forced to jump through to court attention and airplay. One occasion in late 1996 found him sandwiched between alt-rock also-rans like Goldfinger and Poe on a massive radio festival bill, getting pelted with garbage by an audience of 13-year-olds moshing and generally trying to "act punk." (Introducing the Only Ones' "Another Girl, Another Planet" from the stage that day, Westerberg would sarcastically intone: "Here's a song written by a bunch of junkies before you all were born.") For a remarkably shy and sensitive character, such a professional beating would leave lasting scars. It would be another six years before Westerberg would perform in public again.

And yet, he decided to make one more effort to climb the ladder of "suck-cess." Ending his 13-year relationship with Warner Bros. in 1998, Westerberg's move over to Capitol Records was chiefly the result of label president Gary Gersh's decision to personally serve as his A&R man. Gersh's only caveat to Westerberg upon signing was "I don't want you to be just some guy with a guitar." Westerberg's reaction was one of muted dismay, as he considered his heroes, other "guys with guitars"—Chuck Berry, Freddy King, Keith Richards—and thought, "That is what I am."

Deciding to humor his new benefactor, and perhaps curious to see whether he could take an alternate route to pop success, Westerberg began writing on piano instead, recording a batch of stripped-down demos at home. When he took the tunes to high-profile producer Don Was (Rolling Stones, Elton John), the dreadlocked studio whiz tinkered and toyed a while before finally using the first takes and final mixes Westerberg had thrown together himself in the quiet of his basement. It was there and then that Westerberg realized he could make as good—certainly as professional— an album as he wanted on his own.

The resulting disc, Suicaine Gratifaction, was a promising, if somewhat uneven affair. Still, tracks like "It's a Wonderful Lie," "Self Defense," and "Born for Me" rank among his best, marking a return to the droll wordplay and wry, inverted imagery of the past—the "playing makeup/wearing guitar"-styled couplets of Tim calling out from the verses like long lost friends. By far his most sonically subdued collection, to the few who chose not to reject it out of hand for that reason, Suicaine Gratifaction was as good an indication as any that Westerberg still had plenty left in the tank creatively.

The commercial end, however, was an altogether different matter. By the time the album was released—in a stroke of pure hard luck—Gersh had bolted Capitol, leaving Westerberg to deal with a label that didn't hear a single and an album headed straight for the cutout bins. The record sold a paltry 50,000 copies.

Finally fed up with the vagaries of the music industry, Westerberg quickly got out of his recording contract, got rid of his manager, shed himself of all his business ties and disappeared from public view. He went back to Minneapolis, to his house and his newborn son, and waited—as he later admitted—to have a massive nervous breakdown. In his 40s, with a bad back, chronic sinus infection, and a mass of rotting teeth, Paul Westerberg had given most of his life and large chunks of soul for rock 'n' roll and been repaid with scorn. One could hardly blame him if he gave up for good.

And so he waited for the depression and anxiety to get the better of him. And waited. And waited. After a while he realized that like a willow he might bend, but he'd never truly break. So when he finally got tired of hanging around for the mental collapse that never came, Westerberg figured it was time to get downstairs and start making music again.

ODDLY ENOUGH, the seeds of Stereo/Mono were probably sown with the purchase of a guitar—a cherry red Gibson ES-330. Like a 15-year-old with his first six-string, the fortysomething Westerberg took to the instrument like a favorite, forgotten foil and began playing rock 'n' roll in the basement, an activity that reignited his passion for making music . In turn, his acoustic material began sounding tougher without becoming calloused. As the title suggests, Stereo/Mono (released on L.A. punk/indie imprint Vagrant) plays in the cleft between Westerberg's left and right brains, striking the perfect balance between unrestrained noise and plaintive sentiment—a division that ignores the obvious separation provided by the two-disc format and instead bleeds over from song to song.

Westerberg's always had a keen eye for life's ugly truths. Nowhere is that more evident than on the mostly acoustic Stereo, an album he opens with the devastating lilt of "Baby Learns to Crawl," a crooked snapshot of parenthood whose titular baby might be papa or child ("Baby learns to crawl, watching daddy's skin/Learns to fall, get up again"). The razor-sharp "Dirt Into Mud" mines similar subject matter, exploring the necessity of survival through pain and hurt, with lyrics that sound the more earned for Westerberg's recent career woes: "They say a man in pain, he will prepare to die/They say a man who hurts won't even try."

But Stereo's brightest moments are those in which Westerberg's sly lyricism comes to the fore, as it did on the Replacements' best work. "Call me when your eyes are empty/And open all night," he sings on "Only Lie Worth Telling," a wry poison-pen love letter in which double entendres become treble entendres faster than the ear can process. More than any of his solo albums, Stereo rewards multiple listenings; the groaner setup followed by the whip-smart punch line—a trick Westerberg once claimed was the whole secret to his songwriting—is here again in full force, as on the nastily delivered "Boring Enormous": "Here with my headaches and cigars/My love for you is finally scars."

The fractured subject matter on the record's first disc is mirrored by its skeletal arrangements. As Westerberg himself noted a decade ago, rock is about mistakes, about making mistakes work for you, and on Stereo he does just that. Unlike previous efforts, the album is neither mannered nor forced, marked instead by a genuine off-the-cuff feel—out-of-tune guitars, notes not quite reached, tape abruptly running out mid-chorus.

A clattering cover of Flesh for Lulu's "Postcards From Paradise" provides a neat segue into Mono, the disc credited to Grandpaboy, Westerberg's Keith Richards-fixated alter ego. If Stereo's sparse arrangements highlight that disc's intimate lyrics, Mono's riff-heavy crunch allows Westerberg to flaunt his cerebral streak. In an era of cut-rate irony, Paul Westerberg's words remain the genuine article; the swaggering, mealy guitar line of "I'll Do Anything" is undercut by the song's priceless chorus tag, "I'll do anything/you ask/but thaa-at!" From the lurching adolescent cockiness of "Knock It Right Out" to "Kickin' the Stall"—the best outtake from Talk Is Cheap that Richards never recorded—Westerberg/Grandpaboy takes what could have become mere cock-rock posturing and turns it into music with balls and brains in equal measure.

Though it's not the central—or even a terribly significant—criticism of the record, Mono also shows up the paucity of self-styled Westerberg clones. It's the album that latter-day knockoffs like the Goo Goo Dolls have been trying to make ever since the Replacements broke up, and have consistently failed to produce. (Asked about the debt the Goos owed him and his music, Westerberg cracked pricelessly, "If they record one of my songs on their greatest hits album, we'll call it even.")

In large measure, Mono is Paul Westerberg's summative response to those pseudo-fans who wanted him to keep destroying himself so they could live vicariously, a coup other grownup artists have experienced significant trouble achieving. Alex Chilton, for example—long one of Westerberg's own idols—never seemed to be able to walk that line with complete success, always pulling back into insulated, protected cool when a necessary risk would have been the braver move. The Grandpaboy moniker thus makes exquisite sense: Mono is music performed by an elder statesman who's reached back into his youthful enthusiasm and found a rich storehouse of energy in reserve.

Stereo/Mono thus finds Westerberg surpassing both his teachers and his students, refusing to bow under the pressure of his young man blues, refusing to fade away or become obsolete.

He'll do anything we ask. But thaa-at.

bmehr@seattleweekly.com

 
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