College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #50 and #49

50. The Replacements, Pleased to Meet Me (1987)

According to bassist Tommy Stinson, the Replacements went to Memphis expecting, maybe even intending, to implode. Arguably, such an outcome wouldn’t have been a surprise to anybody. The Minneapolis band was as known for their self-destructive antics as much as for any of the sterling songs in their repertoire. What’s more, they had just ousted their incendiary guitarist Bob Stinson, who was the person centrally responsible for starting the band and, not so incidentally, Tommy’s older sibling. (Not long after the axing, Tommy Stinson fired back at criticism that he wasn’t giving his all in recording sessions by snarling, “You don’t think I’m serious? I fired my fuckin’ brother. That’s how serious I am about this band.”) If frontman and main songwriter Paul Westerberg quickly took over as the Replacements’ buzzy brain and wounded heart, Stinson was, for many, still the raucous soul. Speculation was high that the group couldn’t endure without him. Even the remaining members — Westerberg, the younger Stinson, and drummer Chris Mars — suspected as much.

Memphis was the locale where the Replacements made their fifth studio album, Pleased to Meet Me. Their second outing with Warner Bros. subsidiary Sire Records, the album couple the group to producer Jim Dickinson, selected after the band rejected a slew of other suitors. Dickinson had a history that seemed especially suited to working these particular charges. He’d played on cuts by the Rolling Stones and produced the final studio album by Big Star, both acts that naturally came to mind when a Replacements record was spinning. Instead of appreciation about his resume, Dickinson got the gig largely because he showed no signs of wanted to corral the band’s recklessness or finesse their material into a guesswork version of what might prove more commercial. He heard their demo, and he liked it. Working with Dickinson also meant going to his home turf in Tennessee. While their hometown reputation was still smarting from Bob Stinson’s forced exit, getting out of Dodge must have held some appeal, too.

“We’re not that good,” the Replacements’ frontman Paul Westerberg declared to a reporter as the band toured the country in support of Pleased to Meet Me. “We don’t play that well. But we get very bored with one certain style and we have learned more chords, so we like to try new things.”

Down to a trio for the recording process (guitarist Slim Dunlap joined the band in time for the subsequent tour and played on their final two studio albums), the Replacements also felt freer to try new things because of the absence of Bob Stinson, who was constitutionally averse to the more melodic and pop-oriented instincts that Westerberg always had and was increasingly interested in exploring. That didn’t mean Westerberg had completely abandoned the more roughly hewn version of his music making, as demonstrated by the raucous thrasher “Shooting Dirty Pool” or the splendid throwaway “I Don’t Know” (“Should we give it up? (I don’t know)/ Or hang around some more? (I don’t know)”). Elsewhere, “I.O.U.” is like an Exile on Main Street track that that got beaten up by hardcore-playing ruffians in the back alley before taking the stage and spitting out blood between verses. Tipping off where Westerberg’s songwriting sensibility truly lies, and in defiance of most punk rock norms, the lyrics of the songs are more forlorn than angry.

“Maybe that is our one and only claim to fame, cryin’ in our beer at a hundred and twenty decibels,” Westerberg told The Los Angeles Times. “We’re the loudest crybabies in show business.”

More than with any preceding records, Westerberg the inspired pop craftsmen is present on Pleased to Meet Me. “Alex Chilton,” named for and inspired by the Big Star legend, is the glimmering hit that should have been, and “Can’t Hardly Wait” isn’t far behind in effervescent glory. Even songs that seem like larks — such as “Red Red Wine” — have a sturdiness to them that indicates a level of follow through and commitment that the Replacements were previously averse to, perpetually mired in the belief that a performative lack of trying provided a safeguard against declarations of failure.

It’s the album’s two ballads that most convincingly show that the band has grown up. “The Ledge” is a emotionally wrought, power chord punching tale of a young male on the verge of hurling himself off a building (“I’m the boy they couldn’t ignore/ For the first time in my life, I’m sure”). Westerberg’s lyrics neither glamorize nor condemn the suicide ideation that swarms over teens buffeted by the conflicting miseries of adolescence. The words practically quiver with empathy and understanding. Equally affecting in a very different emotional register, “Skyway” is a tender acoustic number that employs one of the more unique structural facets of the Replacements’ home city to strike home at a bittersweet universal truth of romantic missed connections (“In my stupid hat and gloves, at night, I lie awake/ Wonderin’ if I’ll sleep/ Wonderin’ if we’ll meet out in the street”). On the cut, Westerberg is vulnerable like he’d never been before and arguably never would be again. He was self-conscious enough about it that he recorded it without his bandmates in the post-dawn hours when they were still sleeping off the previous evening’s revelry.

“It’s been hard for me to do, but I’ve come to grips with fact that I’m an artist,” Westerberg said around that time. “For years I pretended I wasn’t. I pretended I was a punk, I pretended I was a rocker, and a drunk, and a hoodlum. I’m not a hoodlum. I’m fucking artist. And now I can deal with that.”

Not all of the Replacements’ fans were as amenable to dealing with that. As much as any act that made their modest fame on college radio, the Replacements were constantly buffeted by gripes that whatever their latest album might be, it certainly wasn’t as appealing as their louder, more deliberately scattershot clatter of days gone by. I maintain, however, that Pleased to Meet Me is as good as a rock ‘n’ roll album can get.

49. The Cult, Love (1985)

In 1981, singer Ian Astbury pulled together a band that he dubbed Southern Death Cult, and they started playing shows in the U.K. As the place, era, and band name strongly imply, the group was awash in the sounds and styles of goth rock and post-punk. They toured with Bauhaus for a while, raising no complaints of a mismatched bill. When that group broke up, in 1983, Astbury tried again, teaming with guitarist Billy Duffy as a main collaborator. They pared down the name of Astbury’s preceding outfit first to Death Cult before finally settling on the snappier the Cult. Their debut LP, Dreamtime, was a hit on the U.K. independent charts, which garnered attention from some of the biggest of music biz big shots. Although they remained with modest shingle Beggars Banquet, the Cult’s sophomore album, Love, was also on the Warner Bros. subsidiary Sire Records, which gave it a big international push.

By the time of Love, the goth and post-punk trappings of the Cult were almost entirely jettisoned in favor of a big, booming rock sound that drew freely on the acts that were almost cementing themselves permanently into album rock radio. Astbury and Duffy had a shared affinity for the rock bands that warped psychedelia and blues into massive thunder than approached heavy metal without ever caving entirely to its most bombastic indulgences. To a degree, the members of the Cult aw themselves as a throwback.

“Me and Ian are just two English kids who grew up listening to rock music and then got into punk,” Duffy explained as the Cult made the rounds in support of Love. “I just want to play rock music, and I’m not ashamed of it. I’d much rather play that than the pretentious, art school, bedsit music that’s around so much right now.”

Of course, Duffy is forgetting that some of the rock music they were drawing on was pretty pretentious, too. Love has some big ballads that are adorned with the most tedious excesses of nineteen-seventies prog rock. “Brother Wolf, Sister Moon” swells with strained majesty (“Embrace the wind with both arms/ Stop the clouds dead in the sky/ Hang your head no more/ And beg no more”) and “Black Angel” could slide unnoticed into any number of misty, Ren-Faire-ish concept albums used for determined seed and stem sorting of the ornate gatefold covers (“The sirens call a sailor to die/ Enchanted by the sound, his desires have been found/ In his mind, his life is rushing by/ All this while, the storm it rages on”). The tracks are reasonable effective on their own terms, but they’re far from the lean, mean rock that Duffy claims the Cult was concentrating on.

Astbury later pegged Love as the last time the Cult went into the studio with no real expectations weighing on them. They weren’t trying to live up to their own mythos, as they did, consciously or not, on albums that followed. The only goal was to make music they themselves wanted to hear.

Electric and Sonic Temple were made with a lot of instinct, but they were also made with an awareness of what we had become,” Astbury said many years later. “The Love album didn’t have any of that; there was no awareness of what we had become. We just did it. And that’s something that’s really exciting about youth. That’s why youth is able to just run in the room and do what it does. It’s fresh, naive, earnest; it hasn’t been beaten to the ground yet. It hasn’t had to go through all the hoops and turns that life can throw at you.”

What they did was make rock songs that could be a little dumb but also roar with a fervor that’s difficult to shake. “Rain” is wiry tough, and “The Phoenix” has guitars parts as slick and pliable as mercury. “Big Neon Glitter” is like the Doors entangling with U2, which is a fair approximation of where the Cult sat on the continuum of rock music. It all comes together on the scintillating “She Sells Sanctuary,” the album’s most enduring song and the one that arguable defines the contours of the band’s sound. It’s arguably the track that they constantly tried to replicate from there on in. If they never quite made it, they sure did come close sometimes.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs.

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