Paul Westerberg Stereo (Vagrant, 2002)

[Vagrant; 2002]

Styles: rock, singer/songwriter
Others: The Replacements, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones

For a nation of beautiful losers, The Replacements were the most beautiful. After they fragmented and went separate ways, it was tragically appropriate that the fissile matter that they produced together was rarely glimpsed again in their solo output. All four members of the group made respectable-to-excellent solo records for a while, but only lead singer and songwriter Paul Westerberg has strung together a career, however misbegotten it has seemed at times. Of Westerberg's recent work, Stereo is far and away his most accomplished. In fact, Stereo is one of the great rock LPs of 2002, and it stands with the best of the Replacements albums, restating the case that weird Paul Westerberg is as mysterious, as empathic, and as lovely as all those beautiful losers--now less beautiful and perhaps less at a loss--always claimed him to be.

Where did this album come from? Westerberg has spent great energy in his previous solo albums stabbing at the ghost of his old band. Among those previous LPs, one can find fistfuls of great tunes, songs as good as the greatest 'Mats numbers. But the production often felt forced. Forced like someone was trying to do something. Trying to make the album into something. Forced like someone was trying to make Paul into something. And that alone was the flaw, because one thing the Replacements rarely seemed was calculated. In their ten or so years the Replacements recorded the stupidest of songs, the meanest of cranked-up anthems, and the most sentimental of torchers, steeped in torqued-cliche-ridden images of tear-dropped mascara and empty wine bottles. The outfit deserved its moniker as the greatest band that never happened. And Westerberg was the centerpiece, the rough-tongued singer with the rusty golden heart.

But Westerberg's solo LPs seemed haunted by his own legacy. He was still penning good songs, but the albums felt thin and bloodless. A few years ago Westerberg packed it all away for a bit and went quiet. Apparently in the ensuing time he's written and recorded dozens of songs, laying them out in his home studio and now releasing them on two albums under the heading Stereo. (The second disc is actually called Mono, and it was released initially on its own under the heading Grandpa Boy.)

This is not quite a double album; it's two albums in one package. The discs are similar to one another, yet distinct. Stereo is a primarily acoustic affair, not folky but as close as Westerberg's come to it. Mono sounds more like what we've come to expect from Paul, a Replacements-like rocker, and it is, for the most part, a jolly affair. Mono lobs playful Westerbergisms like "Stay where you are! / With your eyes like sparks/ and my heart like gasoline." This from "Eyes Like Sparks" a track that gleefully rides one guitar hook for two and a half minutes. And Mono is good fun, but it is given more mileage by its sibling disc, which is equal parts domestic sublime and existential basement diary. For a self-made record with songs abruptly cut off by run-out tape and spilled Mountain Dew, Stereo is a finely shaped, hauntingly atmospheric collection.

"Boring Enormous" begins: "Hot coffee laughs at us every morning/ We always laugh at the choices we've made/ And ask ourselves /how did it get so early? / We're boring enormous, will they inform us/ That up close we still look afraid?/ Boring enormous, it isn't for us to say..." Westerberg is in a wirey, graveled voice, singing over simple acoustic guitars and occasional double tracking; an accordion drifts in and out, ghost voices follow and then fade. Much of Stereo is like this, with minimal arrangements, lyrics at times poignant yet fragmented, and songs structured organic and accidental. The recordings, appropriately, are warm and analog, simple-seeming but broad and bottomed-out. This isn't Paul's adult or singer/songwriter platter, and this record is never for one moment a bore. There's some diligently claustrophobic rock on the Stereo side, and the Mono/ Grandpaboy record is a hammered out set that could be the 'Mats themselves, reborn in noisy Minneapolis or rock  heaven.

Where do these songs take us? Well firstly we are delivered to familiar Paul Westerberg turf, the location of that wounded empathic boy that once sang "16 Blue" (on Let It Be, Twin/Tone, 1984) the only drunk punk who felt more pity for a lonely adolescent girl than he did for his own misbegotten self. Stereo's "No Place For You" seems to revisit this same person, now a woman, and Paul's contemporary ode is the perfect companion to that long bygone sympathy piece. But there are new locations reached on these records, and on Stereo in particular, and it is these discoveries that make this record so phenomenal. Paul Westerberg hasn't relocated the magic place that he hastily evacuated at the end of the eighties. Rather, he's finally discarded them like the ballast that they are. Stereo's second track, "Dirt To Mud", is a tirelessly drawn folk dirge that flips back and forth between resolutions of fortitude and resignations of hurt. It's an unusually simple song, repeating images of blood and mud and whatnot until they actually resonate again.

Indeed it's a serious album, and the humorous swatches are few. But the humor is more pleasurable for its scarcity. "Mr. Rabbit", an old folk song rearranged and jammed out toward the end of the LP, is a shining nihilistic epiphany, tied into a pogo-ing guitar figure: "Mr. Rabbit! Mr. Rabbit! / Your ears are mighty long/ Yes by God they put 'em wrong/ Every little soul must shine! / Mr. Rabbit! Mr. Rabbit! your eyes are mighty red/ Yes by God I'm almost de-ead/ Every little soul must shine!" This track is chased out by the equally bleak "Let The Bad Times Roll", whose punch- line title is the only thing funny about it. This song digs its hole slowly. Paul is entirely clean, but he's got his Keith Richards' nod down pat. 

Westerberg defuses the tension by winding up the album with an old fashioned break- up number, "What's takin' so long? / You call that gone?" he quips on "Call That Gone?" After the twin oblique "Let The Bad Times Roll" and "Mr. Rabbit", the comfort of everyday heartache never felt so reassuring. On the heels of this comes a rad and rolicking hidden track, a cover of Flesh for Lulu's "Postcards From Paradise," anthemic barstool blues; thanks Paul for packing it all into this record.

We never wanted Paul to grow up, and he fought it tooth and nail. But now that he has, it's clear that he was always an old codger, uncomfortable in young skin. There's no complacency here, only unnerved, reedy old age. Paul skipped the mid-life crisis and went straight to Rumple Stiltskin land. This album is essential.

Paul Westerberg, Stereo

1. Baby Learns to Crawl
2. Dirt to Mud
3. Only Lie Worth Telling
4. Got You Down
5. No Place For You
6. Boring Enormous
7. Nothing To No One
8. We May Be The Ones
9. Don?t Want Never
10. Mr Rabbit
11. Let The Bad Times Roll
12. Call That Gone?

Grandpaboy, Mono

1. High Time
2. I?ll Do Anything
3. Let?s Not Belong
4. Silent Film Star
5. Knock It Right Out
6. 2 Days ?Til? Tomorrow
7. Eyes Like Sparks
8. Footsteps
9. Kickin? The Stall
10. Between Love & Like
11. AAA

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