ALL SHOOK DOWN
Sire Records 926298-2
Paul Westerberg, sturdy and talented, burst into the record business with a snotty and loud foursome, the Replacements; he's been trying to live it down ever since. The bashing and crashing have given way to sensitively constructed songs, and the band's bad attitude has smoothed out into a faintly sarcastic professionalism. At the same time, however, Westerberg remembers when a bad attitude was good, and he has a lot of respect for the days when there was more to life in the music business than worrying about an AOR hit; as a result, he's more than a bit defensive about the Replacements' progress, and he's been known to overreact--call it protesting too much. Still, he's always had a sense of humor, and he's spent his maturity--he approached something like puberty on the Replacements' last indie album, Let It Be, and continued to mellow out through the band's four releases on Warner Brothers--constructing an extended, joking commentary on growing old, getting soft, and selling out, a wry counterpoint to both the Replacements' ever-more-radio-friendly output and their ever-more-professional approach to the music business generally.
Now, the transformation complete, Westerberg's signature is his wiseass copping to the selling of his soul--he's half-embarrassed by it, but he gets a new kind of thrill out of the process as well: "They put a checkbook to my head," he smirks on the Replacements' new album, All Shook Down. I can't think of anyone who has so gleefully tracked the progress of his own debauching. The band's last album, the ironically titled AOR breakthrough Don't Tell a Soul, had a heady reflexiveness in songs like "Talent Show" ("We ain't much to look at so / Close your eyes and here we go"); All Shook Down brazenly continues this tradition in razzle-dazzle fashion--it's the cleanest and poppiest Replacements album yet, with more than its share of nifty radio blasters, a selection of songwriterly cream puffs for the English majors, and subtext aplenty for the critics. It's also the wimpiest, which is a problem; but most of all, it's the most resonant commentary we've yet seen on the aging of the postpunk rock 'n' roll zeitgeist.
Westerberg and the Replacements grew up proudly under the twin influences of unpretentious 70s hard rock (Aerosmith and Kiss) and the punks. From the latter, they learned contempt for the record business--it's important to remember that the Replacements came from that first generation of rock-and-rollers for whom the quest for popular success was not a given; to them, the gradual change to playing the game, making those radio-friendly records and playing the part of rock star, was a difficult move to make, in terms of both personal philosophy and peer pressure. Westerberg's the group's leader and songwriter, but bassist Tommy Stinson is the residual bearer of the band's thrashy soul and a vocal critic of Westerberg's wimpier moments. Playing the game to become famous may seem inevitable, even routine, to us--we don't think about the implications of it much, but we instinctively wish fame and fortune on the artists we like--but for the Replacements, and particularly for Westerberg, who's going through most of the changes, and in public no less, it's scary ground.
All Shook Down was originally conceived as a Westerberg solo record, which may help explain its overall softness and the fact that the members of the band are all listed among a larger supporting cast of musicians. The result is nothing ground-breaking--just a restatement of purpose set to the band's continuingly sweetened sound. You get rockers ("My Little Problem," "Bent Out of Shape"), a few more edgy profiles ("Nobody," "One Wink at a Time"), a couple new examples of that sentimentality that's been clogging Replacements records since Tim's "Here Comes a Regular" ("Sadly Beautiful," "The Last"), and, finally, song after song about the trials of Westerberg.
Probably the most potent of these is "When It Began," which leads off side two. Bouncy but undistinguished musically (the beginning sounds a lot like--too much like--Don't Tell a Soul's "Back to Back"), engagingly sung but lyrically mocking, "When It Began" is the most telling example so far of Westerberg's protest-too-muchiveness. It's a song about the pointlessness of opposing progress--i.e., the progress of Paul Westerberg's career: "Stop at a light you drive right through / And where you've been is still in view / You stop at nothing at your first chance / Now it's nothing like when it began." The lines are a tougher, much less gracious version of Bruce Springsteen's "All That Heaven Will Allow," a similar statement of independence on Tunnel of Love: "Now some may want to die young, man / Young and gloriously / Get it straight now Mister / Hey buddy that ain't me." Unlike Bruce, though, Westerberg goes on to take a couple of cheap shots at narrow fans: "I never had to bow to you when we began / Now I can play one tune at your command."
The crack is a rare lapse on Westerberg's part, and a telling glimpse at some underlying tensions; he makes a lot of jokes about it, but he's probably not sure if he's doing the right thing--you always get the feeling he thinks there's a bunch of people out there ready to yell "Sellout!" at him. It's kind of sad, for a couple of reasons; to the extent that the issue exists at all, it's limited to some of the rougher fanzines, and so what. But there's another issue as well, one that I like to call, rather dopily, the Springsteen factor.
Now, Springsteen comparisons might be a stretch: Westerberg's heritage is different from Springsteen's; he's the product of a much more cynical and wearied generation, and while it wouldn't bother me a bit if it happened, I don't see Paul Westerberg becoming People magazine fodder, at least this time out. But what is similar about them is the fact that early on in their respective careers it became clear that there was something going on of more than casual interest. Middle-period Replacements albums--Let It Be, say, and Tim--are interesting for any number of reasons, most of which were said at the time: a revivified blast of midwestern rock 'n' roll, a canny lead writer and singer, clearly ambitious, blah blah blah. More important, in the longer view, were just a couple of the songs--"Within Your Reach," say, or "Unsatisfied," or particularly Tim's "Left of the Dial." Each of these songs has a superficial appeal: the first is a moody exercise in sound manipulation, the second an epic statement of personal and professional angst, the third a gnawing homage to college radio. But buried in these songs were messages that hinted that grimy little Paul Westerberg was at least occasionally able to conjure up moments that touched on the transcendent; it reminds me of what someone once wrote about an early Rod Stewart album--you think, he can't understand that.
"Left of the Dial," for example, is studiedly dissociative, and a lot of the words are buried beneath the most stringent, convulsive guitar track in the Replacements' career. But it's apparent that the song is about the alternative scene of the 80s--the groups from the American independent, or Amerindie, label network, for whom R.E.M. and the Replacements are proud successes--bands crossing the country by bus, connected to others of their kind by little more than posters on telephone poles and the few radio stations (generally college ones squished to the "left of the dial") that played the music. In the song, Westerberg captures both the excitement of driving around the country checking out the stations--"Did they mention our name?" he sings--and a lot more of the pathos:
Pretty girl keep growing up
Playing makeup, and wearing guitars
and growing old in a bar
You grow old in a bar
Westerberg's singing, vague and buried in the mix, here becomes bruised, raspy, abject. The "pretty girl" part looks a bit cheesy on the page, but Westerberg's many female characters are almost always sensitively handled. In any case, the lines reverberate across almost a decade, evoking the band's career and the careers of a lot of other kids in similar places. In early interviews Westerberg boasted of how Tommy, who joined the band at 13 and left high school for good in his sophomore year, had grown up on the road: "How many kids would die for that? They're sitting in a tenth-grade algebra class and Tommy's drinking from a bottle of Jack Daniels, going down the road." But at the same time Westerberg has always been more than aware that the undertaking is a crapshoot, and that the crapshoot has rather more dire consequences for high school dropouts who play bass than it does for charismatic frontmen with innate songwriting skills. I think "Left of the Dial" is Westerberg's tribute both to other, lesser bands and to his bandmates. "If I don't see you for a long long while," he sings, "I'll try to find you left of the dial." Perceptions and song constructions on this level are rare in rock 'n' roll, and we root for Westerberg because we all have a vested interest in kids like him reaching something like full flower.
Now all he has to do is put out great records, which he hasn't done yet. Replacements albums get amazingly good press, but they're all erratic and flawed. Let It Be is seriously considered by some to be one of the great records of the decade, but genre exercises like "Gary's Got a Boner" and "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out" don't hold up well. Even on the occasionally sublime Tim you still get noisy stuff like "Dose of Thunder" and the beginnings of that Westerberg treacle on "Here Comes a Regular." His solo songs--he tends to do one acoustic or electronic solo song per album--occasionally work; "Answering Machine," all guitar swirls and shouted vocals, is just perfect, for example. But as time has gone on he's tended toward James Taylor-ish ballads like "Skyway," a cloying tune about love at a distance, or "Here Comes a Regular," about barflies, or Don't Tell a Soul's "Achin' to Be," which has all the keen artistic insight of a Jon Bon Jovi.
All Shook Down, while it strives toward the consistency of Don't Tell a Soul, gets mired down in junk. "Attitude" is a bland tune that seems to start out being about alcoholism but then ratchets over to being one of those boy-was-I-a-goof-when-I-was-growing-up songs. (Next to Springsteen's "Growin' Up," it's even blander.) "Sadly Beautiful" makes "Achin' to Be" look like Leonard Cohen, and John Cale playing viola on it just makes it worse. (I thought seriousness moves like that went out with Moog synthesizers.) "Torture" is almost a bleat. All of these songs, too, suffer from a terribly misconceived abandonment of the band's musical attack; if Westerberg keeps this up he's going to be pressing the flesh with Kenny Rogers on the American Music Awards before we know it.
Those are the low points. There are some high ones, but it should be noted that there's not one classic song on the album--no "Left of the Dial," no "Alex Chilton." "Nobody," a nice take on the old-boyfriend-at-the-wedding saw, has great tasteful guitars and some concentrated singing by Westerberg; it's wryly affectionate at the beginning, but by the last chorus his voice is a low-key howl. "One Wink at a Time," one of his warm profiles, about a woman getting off a plane, has some nice detailing--she distractedly leaves her magazine on the plane, and then misses the baggage claim; though it eventually drifts off, Westerberg's emotional commitment to the song is plain. Of the rockers, "Merry Go Round," another sympathetic female portrait, is the most focused--its first slurry, sloppy chord is a ringing Replacements side starter in the tradition of the full-on scream of "Anywhere Is Better Than Here." "Bent Out of Shape" is an obsessive love song with a few quirks (he gets relief with cheesecake and Sleepytime tea). And the rockin'est cut on the record is "My Little Problem," a steamy but weird duet with Concrete Blonde singer Johnette Napolitano. There's a great grungy guitar line and the Replacementsy touch of tossing in some studio talk over the opening chords. But I don't like the way the song is recorded--a sexy, head-over-heels duet like this has to have a palpable live feel, and Westerberg and Napolitano's voices sound too clean to me. It does rock, though. (Napolitano is a former LA street hippie known for living hard who currently has a big hit with the Heart-ish "Joey"; she's been turning up on a lot of records lately, notably John Hiatt's Stolen Moments. On a promo tape from Warner Brothers Westerberg says that Napolitano flew in from London to cut the song; after a couple of takes, she said she was going out for cigarettes and never came back. The band finally called her hotel at 2 AM, only to learn that she'd gone back to England. "I think," said Westerberg drily, "that she's one of those people who are uncomfortable being in the same country for more than about 45 minutes.")
But you look to Paul Westerberg for songs about what it's like to be Paul Westerberg these days. "Someone Take the Wheel" (the chorus continues, "'cause I don't know where we're goin'") is a rather sketchy life-on-the-road song; it's another that suffers from a far too lightweight arrangement--sometimes it sounds like it's just going to fade off the record. If you're listening on CD, "Someone Take the Wheel" kicks off a five-song cycle of songs about Westerberg, his future, and his past. "When It Began" comes next, still a bit mean sounding, and later you get the rather too satiric "Happy Town" and the disappointing "Attitude." But in between you get the title song, perhaps the strangest piece of music the Replacements have yet recorded. You can't make out a lot of the words; Westerberg's voice is so hoarse it sounds like he's taking a drag off a cigarette before each line, and there's hardly any instrumentation beyond a bass, a bit of acoustic guitar, and a recurring sigh. It's a pretty funny song nonetheless, a life-in-the-record-industry set piece on a par with Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar": ""Fifth cookin' week' / "An absolute must' / "One of the year's best' ain't saying much," whispers Westerberg. We've watched him for too long to have any suspicions that he's indulging in self-pity: he gets in the "They held a checkbook to my head" line, and concludes, "The praises they sing / The register rings / . . . They shake my hand as I drown / We're all shook down." Elvis, of course, was all shook up. Suddenly Paul Westerberg is no longer snotty, no longer a brat: he's just a grown-up kid making his way in a foreign business, and he's too honest to do anything but keep us posted on his progress.