Thursday, January 1, 2009

Let it be, but don't let it end.

For Christmas my brother and sister-in-law gave me the reissued editions of Tim (1985) and Pleased to Meet Me (1987), the Replacements’ first two albums for Sire Records. Exactly 15 years earlier my brother gave me Tim on CD. It’s an album that’s grown on me—when I received it on Christmas Day in ’93 I was disappointed by it in comparison with Pleased to Meet Me.

It wasn’t until 2002, when I read a long article about the band online and listened to all of their albums again, that I realized just how great “Bastards of Young” is. And “Left of the Dial.” And a few years later “Little Mascara” won me over. Even “Dose of Thunder” and “Lay It Down Clown” aren’t bad as far as filler goes. When I first heard Tim, the songs that struck me were “Hold My Life” (“Because I just might lose it ... / Because I just might use it”), “I’ll Buy,” “Waitress in the Sky,” and “Swingin Party,” but that was it. Now I realize it was a terrific big-league debut for the band, proof that their spirit hadn’t been diminished in the transition.

I think they peaked with Let It Be (1984), though. Don’t Tell a Soul (1989) is my sentimental favorite because it’s the first one I heard (naturally, my brother owned it), but Let It Be is the Replacements' best. I listened to it today on my way back to Macon from Athens and was reminded how gosh darn positive it is. But Let It Be doesn’t earn that adjective by peddling false hope or love-will-conquer-all banalities—it does it by being inclusive.

I didn’t grow up working-class in Minnesota like the Replacements did, and I never got fall-down drunk in my 20s, but I do know what it’s like to be lonely, and that’s all you need to connect to the band and all their fans. It’s why almost every song on the album is an anthem, but not in a calculated way—if you’ve ever felt like an outcast or a loser, Paul Westerberg’s lyrics are there to reassure you that you’re not the only one. His lyrics will be instantly memorized and repeated for decades to come, because teen and twentysomething alienation isn't going out of style anytime soon.

Here are two verses from “Sixteen Blue,” inspired by bassist Tommy Stinson, who was only 12 when the band formed in ’79:

Drive your ma to the bank
Tell your pa you got a date
But you’re lying
Now you’re lying
On your back

Your age is the hardest age
Everything drags and drags
You’re looking funny
You ain’t laughing, are you?
Sixteen blue

The melody, Westerberg's vocals, and the band's performance ache right along with the lyrics. Then there’s “Androgynous,” which is more whimsical in nature but just as open-hearted:

Something meets boy and something meets girl
They both look the same, they’re overjoyed in this world
Same hair, revolution
Unisex, evolution
Tomorrow who’s gonna fuss?

This is the chorus:

Mirror image, see no damage
See no evil at all
Kewpie dolls and urine stalls
Will be laughed at
The way you’re laughed at now

I saw Westerberg perform “Androgynous” on my 21st birthday, in 1996, when he was touring behind his second solo album, Eventually. He couldn’t remember all the words, so the audience filled in for him, a couple hundred self-diagnosed outcasts and losers helping out their hero the way his songs helped them through the rough patches of adolescence. Moments like that are why I still go to concerts, and no concert since Westerberg's has topped it.

The supposed tension between Westerberg and lead guitarist Bob Stinson, who wasn’t interested in playing the singer’s slower stuff, may have led Westerberg to amp up “Unsatisfied” and “Answering Machine,” two other anthems about romantic frustration and loneliness. Let It Be is the last Replacements album on which Stinson plays a major role; though he’s credited as lead guitarist on Tim, he was reportedly absent from most of the recording sessions, and after the band was finished touring behind the album, he was fired.

It can be argued that Let It Be is a collection of songs rather than a cohesive artistic statement: there’s a nothing-special cover of Kiss’s “Black Diamond,” and “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and “Gary’s Got a Boner” are jokes, but at least they're funny and they rock. But you could also argue that teens and twentysomethings are highly contradictory creatures whose moods can turn on a dime, from bleak to silly and back again in the course of a couple minutes. In that respect the various moods of Let It Be are right on target.

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