Westerberg — “The Artist Formerly Known as Vital” — opens his third solo outing (fourth, if you count the final Replacements record, All Shook Down ) with the line “I’m past my prime, or was it just a pose.” It’s reasonable to understand that Westerberg would tire of the Replacements monkey on his back. Everything he tries since then is compared to the ‘Mats’ canon of excellence, and like so many influential bands, the Replacements never did make much money. All of that said, if he can’t realize what that band meant to people, and how records like his latest lazy, tossed-off effort are an insult to the memory of a great, literally life-saving band, then he ought to shut the hell up and watch baseball on TV.
For all their drunken posturing, the Replacements were actually one of the more talented and intense bands America has ever spawned — listen to the classic bootleg The Shit Hits the Fans for a aural picture of four incredibly in-synch musicians, playing their hearts out. Even when the band began its decline on the last two records — Don’t Tell A Soul and the aforementioned All Shook Down , they still had a glorious, decaying beauty that no one will ever match. At their peak — the Twin/Tone recordings and Pleased to Meet Me and Tim , they are as good as rock and roll ever came close to getting. Passionate, stumbling guitars, aching vocals and a hell-bent whiskey bound attitude that tried (purposely never well-enough) to hide the disappointment that lurked beneath the happy clown facade, Westerberg and the Replacements delivered on the punk promise while at the same time maintaining a pop sense second to none.
Without the tension a band creates, four egos and ideas battling for space, Westerberg’s solo material has never been as satisfying as his earlier work, but it’s never been this bad. Why this record took so long to create and deliver is a mystery not answered in the grooves. This thing sounds like demos for songs yet to be finished — and considering that it was produced in part by Don Was and features backing hands like drumming legend Jim Keltner and keyboardist Benmont Tench, that’s a lot of talent to have lurking around while you attempt to write a song. This record might be Westerberg’s Basement Tapes , but unlike the spontaneous genius of Dylan and the Band, you get a boring, ambling mess that, except for the voice, sounds nothing like the man who gave us “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Shiftless When Idle,” or “Bastards of the Young” — essential milestones of popular music. People who are satisfied by this record would also like James Ellroy writing a laundry list, or Picasso painting houses with a roller.
Punk rock’s central premise — the dissatisfaction with a culture grounded in boredom and banality, and the fervent desire to smash all that was false and dishonest — fueled bands like Hüsker Dü, the Ramones, Mission of Burma, and most artfully and gloriously, the Replacements. It’s a truly sad day when records like this are all that we are left.
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