6. The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul
Earlier this week, in writing about the DC Comics relaunch that had an uncommonly prominent place in the ongoing mass media conversation, Tom Spurgeon noted, “no one does consumer entitlement like a comics fan.” I’ve tangled capes with my fellow four-color fanatics often enough to confirm the accuracy of that statement, but I don’t think that comics fans run away with the title quite as decisively as I suspect Mr. Sturgeon does. I have a feeling he didn’t properly factor Replacements fans into his seedings.
To be accurate, I’m not sure I’d use “consumer entitlement” exactly to describe Replacements fans, but there’s certainly a fervent proprietary feeling toward their band of choice. This almost always couples with a dead certainty that conclusions based on personal taste made when considering the merits of various albums is akin to unshakable, universal truth, a belief system that is the shared province of those for whom buying records is not a casual diversion, but is instead more of an impassioned necessity, an infusion of life force. What’s more, the most beloved records from the Replacements hold a battered beatific inner resonance. A song like “Unsatisfied” cuts to the core every time it’s heard, expressing the roiling dismay and bitter yearning of a misunderstood soul better than anything short of some emotional masterpiece of a genius poet. But the Replacements version is way more fun to shout along with in the dimly lit gloom of a messy bedroom at three in the morning. A new Replacements record stood out because of the expectations of the disciples. Each new collection of songs was supposed to be a fresh dispatch from some hidden self, a ratification of the feelings that throbbed beneath the surface of all who trudge through a monotonous series of dead-end days. Given that, a mediocre album wasn’t a disappointment for a Replacements fan; it was a betrayal of the highest order.
Most Replacements fans, then, could identify the point when the band stopped being great as assuredly as someone recovering from heartbreak could point to a calendar and name the day their world shattered. For some, the Replacements were never The Mats again after they signed to a major label. For others, it was over when guitarist Bob Stinson was booted from the band. I’ve seen brave, hearty souls who argue that the band peaked with 1983’s Hootenanny–their second album, mind you–and that everything that followed should be dismissed because lead singer and chief songwriter Paul Westerberg was interested in making “real” records instead of the reckless sonic slugfests that defined the band early on. While I have no scientific or statistical data to back this up, it’s long seemed to me that the album most often identified as the one that signaled the true end of the Replacements was 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul.
It certainly represented a clear shift for the band. Working with producer Matt Wallace, then best known for his behind-the-board efforts with Faith No More, which layered a slick, metallic sheen onto the band’s pounding hard rock, the Replacements finally made an album that had no real vestiges of their sloppy past. Even its immediate predecessor, Pleased to Meet Me, could find spots in the track listing for the extended gag “I Don’t Know” and the raging scrum of “Shooting Dirty Pool,” both songs that weren’t all that far removed from the shouts from the id that made up the band’s scattershot debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash. Don’t Tell a Soul, on the other hand, was a concerted, cohesive effort to make a real rock ‘n’ roll album, with no preemptive punts meant to signal that the band didn’t really mean it. If every other Replacements record forestalled failure by operating with a cynically detached tone that communicated an indifference to success, then Don’t Tell a Soul is the true outlier in their catalog by virtue of the fact that it’s their most transparent stab at commercial acceptance. By the evidence of the eleven songs that make up the album, Westerberg and his cohorts were actually trying this time. Hell, the band that made one of the brilliantly hostile and non-conformist music videos ever even stepped before the cameras to lip-sync and feign playing their instruments.
The video in question was for the album’s lead single, the the truly tremendous “I’ll Be You,” which managed to distill the band’s trademark societal disenchantment into something catchy, punchy and fully embraceable. The song, somewhat improbably, became a genuine hit, albeit one that still faced limitations in how fully it crossed over. It was all over MTV and actually managed to top Billboard‘s mainstream rock tracks chart for three weeks. To put the latter in perspective, the next four artists to take that slot after the Replacements were Julian Lennon, Tom Petty, the Doobie Brothers and Stevie Nicks. By and large, this was not company the Replacements regularly kept, although they did spend part of the summer of 1989 opening for Petty on tour, a performing proximity that many felt led to the elder rocker appropriating the “rebel without a clue” turn of phrase from “I’ll Be You” and slipping it into one of his own songs a couple years later.
“I’ll Be You” also managed to become the band’s first song to make into the Billboard “Hot 100” singles chart, peaking at #51. It was also the band’s last appearance there, as nothing else released from Don’t Tell a Soul had the same rocket fuel within it, even for college radio. There were a couple more singles, but they garnered only modest attention. And that was about it for the band. There was one more album with the Replacements name affixed to to it, All Shook Down in 1990, but that was realistically the first Paul Westerberg solo album in every respect but the labeling on the cover. Only one song on that album features the entire band playing together and Westerberg always intended it to be his solo debut; it was the label who saw things differently. In all accuracy, Don’t Tell a Soul is the band’s swan song.
Incidentally, I’m one of those strident, opinionated Replacements fans mentioned above. I believe I’m supposed to have an angry assertion at the ready about when the band sold out or lost their mojo or something like that. But I’m in that group, perhaps a minority, that feels that every official record that bore the band’s name is worth celebrating to some degree. (I reserve my forlorn ire for Westerberg’s solo career, and that particular can should stay firmly sealed and hidden in the worms section of the pantry.) And, even with the studio buffing that so many hate, I think Don’t Tell a Soul is a wonderful album. For one thing, I appreciate the ways in which Westerberg fully committed himself to full-fledged songwriting on the album. I adore many of the throwaways on prior Replacements records, but Westerberg is such a good songwriter that its gratifying to see him put his shoulder into crafting a whole album. Songs like “Asking Me Lies” and “Talent Show” demonstrates that playfulness in the lyrics doesn’t need to undermine the fully thought-out construction of the song. Meanwhile, “We’ll Inherent the Earth” and “Anywhere’s Better Than Here” are characteristically pessimistic statements of purposelessness that don’t extend the act of giving up to the rigors of the song itself.
Given the band’s start as purveyors of sneering punk, some of the most dramatic and surprising moments on Don’t Tell a Soul are the ballads which find Westerberg at his most emotionally open. Many of the band’s best slow songs earlier were couched in the relative safety of romanticized misery. The sadness remains on Don’t Tell a Soul, but it’s deeper, almost existential. Amidst crashing guitars, “Darlin’ One” intermingles hope and loss in way that is piercing. “Rock ‘N’ Roll Ghost” is marked by a bracing level of self-reflection: “You think that I might have heard a word/ But I was much too young/ And much too cool for words/ Look at me now” doesn’t sound like someone just trying to fill up the lyrics sheet with language that reasonably matches the music. And then there’s “Achin’ to Be,” which may be the band’s most poignant moment on record as Westerberg turns his gift for metaphor towards an almost inexpressible emptiness and accompanying separateness from the world: “And she’s kinda like a movie/ Everyone rushes to see/ And no one understands it/ Sittin’ in their seats.” The song is arguably the band’s lifelong theme finally presented in an unguarded manner, with no storm of casually-tuned guitar clatter or withering sense of humor to temper the sorrow. This is what it feels like to feel alone and forever misunderstood, and this is what the feeling sounds like channeled into a song of beautiful pain.
If my evaluation of Don’t Tell a Soul is correct, then it’s no wonder that the album ranks so high on a list based solely upon how well a bunch of college kids connected with it. If anything, the mystery is how it didn’t land higher, and somehow manage to top the list every subsequent year.
20. Bob Mould, Workbook
19. The Rainmakers, The Good News and the Bad News
18. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Laughter
17. Couch Flambeau, Ghostride
16. Robyn Hitchcock ‘n’ the Egyptians, Queen Elvis
15. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
14. Camper Van Beethoven, Key Lime Pie
13. The Sugarcubes, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!
12. The Godfathers, More Songs About Love & Hate
11. Guadalcanal Diary, Flip Flop
10. The Pogues, Peace and Love
9. The Weeds, Windchill
8. Hoodoo Gurus, Magnum Cum Louder
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mother’s Milk