Paul Westerberg

TrackAlbum
World Class Fad14 Songs
Black Eyed Susan14 Songs
Man Without TiesBesterberg
Once Around The WeekendEventually
It’'s A Wonderful LieSuicaine Gratification
Born For MeSuicaine Gratification
No Place For YouStereo
Crackle & Drag (alt. version)Come Feel Me Tremble
My DadFolker
As Far As I KnowFolker

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Contributor: Andrew Shields

Paul Westerberg first came to prominence with perhaps the cult band of the 1980s, The Replacements, which he formed in Minneapolis in 1983 with the brothers Bob and Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars. Along with R.E.M. and Husker Du, The Replacements were one of the first American ‘indie’ bands, releasing their early records on the local label, Twin/Tone records which was run by Peter Jesperson (a key figure in the group’s early history). Although they were influenced by English punk music, their take on it was decidedly American and Westerberg’s lyrics tended to focus on themes of teenage alienation (on songs such as Unsatisfied and The Ledge) rather than on the broader political subjects which were taken up by bands like The Clash. Over time, Westerberg was also to develop a strong melodic sense and this was ultimately to draw the band more and more away from its punk/new wave roots. There was also a romantic air and an oddly vulnerable ‘heart on his sleeve’ strain to some of Westerberg’s best work which distinguished him from many of his contemporaries.

While the Mats, as they were known to initiates (it came from the original term ‘Placemats’, a play on the group’s name) came close on a number of occasions to achieving the type of mainstream commercial success that a number of their peers, most notably R.E.M. did, in the event, they were never quite to do so. This was a consequence of the fact that, for all their musical talent, the band also had a well-developed gift for self-sabotage and their frequently chaotic and (sometimes) drunken live appearances and the persistent rumours of friction between the band’s members were enough to drive away many record company executives who might otherwise have been interested in them.

Nevertheless, Westerberg’s work with the Mats clearly showed him to be one of the best songwriters of his generation. This was still the case even though his songwriting could frequently veer from the sublime (on songs like Sadly Beautiful and Skyway) to the ridiculous or the inane (on tracks like Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out and Dope Smokin’ Moron). In a sense, however, with The Replacements, this inconsistency did not really matter, indeed it was part of their charm, and it may have been part of the reason why the band were so loved by their fans.

This inconsistency also reflected the fact that Westerberg was constantly developing and maturing as a songwriter during the time that the band was together. As a result, the wistful maturity of his songs on their fine final album, All Shook Down, with its country and folk influences, was a world away from the kind of trash power-punk of their first record. The consistent excellence of Westerberg’s later contributions to the group also meant that he appeared to be well set to pursue a successful solo career after the group finally split in 1991.

However, the first album that he released after their breakup, 14 Songs, was an undeniably patchy one and it featured a number of formulaic and largely uninspired Rolling Stones inspired rockers. There were, nonetheless, a number of fine songs on the record and these included the love song, First Glimmer, which was only really to come into its own in later years in live performance. Of the two songs I have chosen for inclusion here, World Class Fad is a warning from a now relatively elder statesman to the new guns then appearing on the scene (some commentators have suggested it is particularly directed towards Kurt Cobain, whose raw and hoarse singing style seemed to have been heavily influenced by Westerberg’s own) about the pitfalls of fame and the rock and roll lifestyle. The second song I have chosen, Black Eyed Susan is one of Westerberg’s most beautiful, poetical (“See the bright pearls sink in the sky of ebony”) and magical ones, and the rough demo version of it included on the album fits the themes of the song perfectly.

As some other commentators have suggested, the best Paul Westerberg songs always sound as if they might fall apart at any minute and this was definitely the case with Black Eyed Susan. The same, almost shambolic, approach also applies to Man Without Ties, one of his wittiest songs, which first appeared on a promo single backing the Keith Richards-esque Knockin On Mine in 1993 and which I have also included here. Eventually, the album which Westerberg released after 14 Songs, was a far more cohesive collection than its predecessor. It was also a somewhat low-key album and the songs on it reflected Westerberg’s own rather jaded and disillusioned state of mind at the time that it was made. From it, I have chosen the beautifully wistful song, Once Around The Weekend. Despite the fact that it included a number of other very fine songs (including These Are The Days, Love Untold, MamaDaddyDid and Angels Walk), the album itself was not a commercial success and it resulted in the end of his stint with Sire/Reprise records.

In consequence, his next album, Suicaine Gratification, came out on Capitol records and it proved to be the last of his albums (at least to date) to be ‘produced’ in the conventional sense – in this case by Don Was. It is also perhaps the best album of his solo career and it reconfirmed his position in the first rank of contemporary songwriters. The songs on the album were generally excellent and it was very difficult to decide which ones to exclude from this list. In the end, however, my choice was based on selecting those tracks which gave a good representation of the qualities of the album as a whole. My first choice from it, Born For Me, is, along with The Replacements’ Sadly Beautiful, Westerberg’s most beautiful bittersweet love song. Its effectiveness is also greatly enhanced by the fine backing vocal from Shawn Colvin. The song also demonstrated that Westerberg’s consummate skill at writing ‘aching’ songs still remained intact. My second choice, It’s A Wonderful Lie, is a wry and acerbic look at the effects of ageing and on Westerberg’s own advance into middle age.

After Suicaine Gratification, he went on to make a series of self-produced albums, which often featured what appeared to be rough demo versions of songs. They also featured tracks which ended abruptly or which started in the middle, as it were, and it was, perhaps, this feature of them which led Steve Earle to state that while he liked Paul Westerberg, he preferred him “when he finishes his songs”. While these albums were undeniably patchy (with Folker probably the most consistent of them in terms of the quality of its songs), at its best, this approach did produce some inspired results. I have selected a number of the best tracks from them here including the brave Crackle & Drag, an excellent song which deals with the circumstances around Sylvia Plath’s suicide, and My Dad, a moving tribute to his father who had died just before Folker was released. From the same album, As Far As I Know was his best pop song since the classic Replacements song, Can’t Hardly Wait.

Although Paul Westerberg was subsequently to release an internet-only album, 49, which contained some excellent songs, and is currently playing the US festival circuit with the recently reformed Replacements, the time is long overdue for a proper collection of new material from this mercurial, inconsistent, but at his best, brilliant songwriter.

Paul Westerberg – Man Without Ties

The Unofficial Replacements Data Base

Dedicated to Paul Westerberg and The Replacements

The Replacements – Toppermost #495

Paul Westerberg biography (iTunes)

Andrew’s toppermost on The Replacements comin’ soon…

TopperPost #260

1 Comment

  1. Keith Shackleton
    Apr 25, 2014

    Every home should have a copy of Suicaine Gratifaction. Born For Me is one of Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs.

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