As the decade of poodle-rock moved into the decade of flannel and corduroy, the ‘last, best band of the eighties’* The Replacements dropped their final album – All Shook Down.
The Replacements had risen from basements and punk-rock roots to major label status on the back of Westerberg’s ever-evolving songwriting and diversity. While they never made good on their promise (a whole ‘nother story), the rising alt-rock scene that took its cues from the punk-rock scene of the eighties (read Husker Du, Black Flag and The Replacements) and the new dawn ushered in by the success of Nevermind and artists that held his band’s work up as influence, the expectation was there for Paul Westerberg’s solo career to deliver on the ground laid by his band.
You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men, though. In a way you wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that Westerberg’s solo career route provided the near exact mirror to that of his band’s: going from major label hopeful to prolific indie label darling to basement recordings.
Seemingly torn between consistently playing to his strengths and trying to cover as many bases as possible and remaining true to his punk rock mindset led to oft-patchy albums. Then again, I don’t think he gave or gives a shit, his cynical approach to the music industry alway apparent. There’s a throwaway “is that good enough?” in the mix on Let It Be‘s ‘Answering Machine’ that’s telling of the approach – capture it and move on to the next rather than labour on it. However, for all that, his work is always worth tuning in for as he remains an excellent songwriter who seems to be able to pull of a catchy riff or aching melody at whim while throwing out lyrics with plenty a clever wordplay and knowing wink and I’ve tried to collect five such examples that cover the range.
Whether we’ll hear more from him at this point is anybody’s guess but I sure hope we do.
Waiting For Somebody
Westerberg’s first new solo music didn’t grace an album of his own name but instead featured heavily in Cameron Crowe’s ‘Singles’. Along with scoring the movie, Paul donated two songs for the soundtrack; ‘Dyslexic Heart (a then-unfinished country song he’d written for someone else) and ‘Waiting For Somebody’.
14 Songs, Westerberg’s first solo album arrived in 1993, a year later than the ‘Singles’ soundtrack. I’ve already covered that album here so let’s skip ahead some to 1996’s suitably titled Eventually. His second album suffers from born from two distinct sessions and producers. Sessions with Brendan O’Brien ended when time and songs ran out and the rest of the album was picked up later with Lou Giordano. I think it was for the best – O’ Brien has a style that layers Westerberg’s work to the point of it sounding tired and lacking the spark that comes when he’s playing looser and more off-the-cuff. That being said, ‘Love Untold’ is a pretty decent song.
Lookin’ Out Forever
Kicked out in just that loose, off-the-cuff style – apparently this one had different lyrics for some time before Josh Freese** walked into the session, counted it off and a new take and chorus made its way onto Westerberg’s third album, and last major label release, Suicaine Gratification.
Having kicked the major label circuit to the kerb (or did it kick him?), Westerberg hit something of a writing streak with three solo albums in his own name along with two credited to his alter-ego Grandpaboy released on Vagrant between 2002 and 2004.
Perhaps to escape the expectation associated with his name, Westerberg used the Grandpaboy albums to drop the stuff that felt more obviously ‘rock & roll’ and Richards indebted stuff that 14 Songs had delivered with ‘Knockin’ On Mine’ and ‘World Class Fad’. It meant that the two albums – Mono and Dead Man Shake – are some of his strongest and most consistent efforts to date.
Seemingly disinterested in releasing an album in a conventional sense, Westerberg retreated to his basement studio. In 2008 the self-recorded 49:00…. of your
Time Life was uploaded to digital outlets that were willing to accept the 49 cents price point he insisted on though promptly disappeared as a likely result of the legal issues surrounding the samples of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Steppenwolf and The Kinks (to name a few) that featured in the single-track album. “Ten publishers came after us immediately ’cause I used all these snippets of songs that I recorded. It was either pay up or pull the thing.”
So he uploaded 5:05 – more of the free-wheeling, deliberately ragged and quickly recorded song that feels like part of his on-going kiss-off to the ‘music making machine’ – which, at 5 minutes and 5 seconds in length, fits in with the 43:55 of the longer piece to total 49 minutes of music on the nose.
I’ll leave you with an interview with the man himself that sums it all up really – the interviewer has no idea who she’s caught in the carpark, Westerberg is perfectly happy for this to be the case. He’s taking the piss a touch with the contents of his bag and yet there’s a certain bittersweet, knowing charm to the ‘yeah, that would be me.’
*per Musician magazine
**drummer extraordinaire who ‘s played with everyone from Sting to Guns ‘n’ Roses as well as The Replacements