Had he not been the most important and compelling American punk-rock voice of the 1980s, a rebellious font of trenchant, self-abusing irony, Paul Westerberg might be thoroughly admired (or at least forgiven) for his solo career. Attempting to reconcile himself with such unforeseen personal developments as sobriety, independence and adulthood, the chortling author of the Replacements’ fiery gumption turned into the James Taylor of post-punk, a sensitive, contemplative sweetheart who knows life can be hard but isn’t unwilling to stop and smell its silver lining. As unfair as it is to judge an artist by standards he has since renounced, it’s impossible to hear the butt end of his solo career without a major twinge of ain’t-the-same resentment.
Writing 14 Songs in the wake of the Mats’ unceremonious collapse, Westerberg presumably had plenty on his mind. But what came out is stiff-upper-lip conviction, by-the-numbers music and glib lyrics that drift away toward remoteness and pretension. Having abandoned self-deprecation and self-destruction, Westerberg doesn’t turn the guns around: his will to cause any serious damage to anyone is gone. “World Class Fad” and the Stonesy “Something Is Me” apply rock juice to anemic taunts, while “Mannequin Shop” takes easy aim into the bucket of cosmetic surgery and fires cotton balls. Turning the intensity knob down to a bland safety zone, Westerberg comes up with some nice melodies, but the transformation from brutal youth to intimate restraint is hard to accept. To its credit, 14 Songs has some gorgeous and affecting love songs (“First Glimmer,” “Runaway Wind,” the acoustic “Even Here We Are,” the country-ish “Things”) and one entertaining sub-punk raver (“Down Love,” a protest against excess volume), but the surprising album neither illuminates nor ameliorates the Replacements’ end.
Having quashed expectations once and for all, there’s no way Westerberg could have disappointed (or, it seems, surprised) anyone on his next album. With heartfelt lines like “A good day is any day that you’re alive,” sung against a spare blend of piano, drums and strings, Eventually reduces the author of “Bastards of Young,” “Unsatisfied” and “Hold My Life” (a song that gets a passing reference in “Good Day”) to Hallmark sentimentality. Though the music floats along dreamily, the sardonic “MamaDaddyDid” (“decided not to raise any children — just like my-my-my Mom and Daddy did”) hints at the broken bottle his songs used to wield, but there’s no danger of bloodshed there, or in such equally tepid observations as “These Are the Days” and “Time Flies Tomorrow.” The Minneapolitan’s familiar skills as an engaging singer and catchy melodicist are intact — the album is very much of a piece with 14 Songs, although it’s more comfortable in the benign folk-rock center than escaping to louder climes — but the lyrics’ resignation suits Westerberg to an entirely different audience than is likely to recognize his name (or, for that matter, the recycled tune of “Once Around the Weekend” or the guitar chords of “You’ve Had It With You”).
Returning to the independent label world for the first time since Let It Be, Westerberg introduced an alter-ego, Grandpaboy. While the self-titled five-song EP is generally goofy fun, the one serious song, “Lush and Green,” ranks as one of his strongest and most revealing ballads.
No sense of fun or strong material is evident on Suicane Gratfication, a career nadir produced by Don Was. With Westerberg trying (and failing miserably) to write more overtly poetic lyrics than ever, the album is split between morose self-pity (“Best Thing That Never Happened”) and treacly sentiment (“Actor in the Street,” “Sunrise Always Listens”). Take the bitter irony, cavalier charm and sharp wit out of the Replacements (not to mention the booze, drug and fear of success), and this is what you get.
Westerberg then signed with indie powerhouse Vagrant and became prolific in a way no one could have imagined: over a two-year span, he wrote, recorded (mostly in his home studio, handling all the instruments himself) and released five albums. The mostly acoustic Stereo, which sounds like the work of a man with something to prove, presents a strong batch of Dylanesque songs. The lyrics, a litany of self-deprecation, full of stinging barbs (“Just add water, I’m disappointed” goes one line in the lovely “Let the Bad Times Roll”), come across as soulful and wise rather than contrived. Mono, included as a bonus disc with Stereo, is a more rocking affair credited to Grandpaboy that sounds like a gloriously sloppy version of the Stones circa 1971. An impressive return to form and relevancy for Westerberg.
Come Feel Me Tremble is the soundtrack CD for a performance video that alternates stirring ballads with energetic garage rock in the manner of mid-period Replacements. The searing “Pine Box” and “Crackle and Drag” use overlapping imagery as Westerberg links his father’s impending death (in the former) to Sylvia Plath’s suicide (in the latter). The album is ingeniously constructed; many of the songs play off each other while seeming off the cuff and loose-limbed. Come Feel Me Tremble boils all the strengths of Stereo and Mono down to one terrific disc.
Grandpaboy’s Dead Man Shake is a shambolic, blues-based record that will repel purists of the 12-bar form but delight anyone who brings a six-pack and a cockeyed sense of humor to the party. A mix of originals and covers (John Prine’s “Souvenirs” among them), the album runs a tad too long but ends on a strong, albeit bizarre, note with Anthony Newley’s ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?,” a rendition that straddles the line between straight-faced sincerity and knowing parody for maximum emotional impact.
Folker lacks any of the high points or surprises of the previous indie records. The tone is more in the line of traditional acoustic pop: pleasant but alternately catchy and bland.
The obligatory career overview, Besterberg, is hit and miss. It concentrates mostly on the major label solo years, plus an assortment of movie soundtrack items and other rarities. As befits someone who is often a poor judge of his own work, the standouts include B-sides (“Seein’ Her,” “Man Without Ties”) and the previously unreleased Faces homage “C’Mon, C’Mon, C’Mon.”