I Buried Paul

More than a decade into Paul Westerberg's solo career, it's time to replace The Replacements

It's not surprising that Westerberg has turned exclusively to laying down tracks as a one-man band. He's a self-described misanthrope, though to judge from his rather tender interactions with fans in Tremble, that self-appraisal is an exaggeration. What's a bit strange is that he's making music--blues and various strains of the Chuck Berry tradition--that's rarely played in this solitary manner. Not that there's anything unusual about making organic-sounding rock one overdub at a time, and John Fogerty, a better drummer, set a precedent for playing this brand of boozy roots music all by his lonesome. Still, there's something funny about a presumably sober guy holed up in his basement looking for ways to make a song called "Hillbilly Junk" sound like it's being played by a pack of hillbillies strung out on junk.

Okay, so I said I wouldn't puke out any sentimental Replacements stories, but I didn't say anything about sentimental Paul Westerberg solo-career stories. Such tales, of course, are a rare breed. C.C. Club regulars rarely meet to trade yarns about the super-sad Westerberg album that no one bought, and the tour that didn't follow. But I have one, sort of.

In 1996, I was working at the Sam Goody in City Center. That was the year Westerberg's second solo album, Eventually, came out to a resounding chorus of critical and public apathy. One day I was playing the record in the back room of the store while affixing security tags to Method Man tapes or raising the price on Lion King videos. One of my co-workers was back there with me, taking her 15-minute lunch break, and she asked what I was listening to. When I told her, she smiled and said she had been a fan as a kid. This surprised me, since I hadn't known this woman to go in for anything more obscure than a Phil Collins B-side. She may as well have claimed a youthful devotion to, say, the Iron City Houserockers or Trotsky Icepick.

Darin Back

Anyway, one of Eventually's songs, "MamaDaddyDid," came on, in which the singer reveals his fear of "raising some messed-up kid, just like my mom and daddy did." It's a very pretty and affecting song, one of several from the Westerbergian '90s that didn't get a fair shake.

By the end of the track, my co-worker was crying, I mean really losing it. "That's the best song he's done since 'Longer,'" she said as she got up to return to the sales floor. Longer than there've been fishes in the ocean. Higher than any bird ever flew. I had been right: She hadn't been a Paul Westerberg fan back in the day, she'd been a Dan Fogelberg fan.

This left me a touch conflicted. On one hand, if my former punk-rock idol could be mistaken for Dan Fogelberg, something was probably wrong. On the other hand, the song made her cry, which is by no means a sure indication of quality, but in this case I was sure that her response was the right one.

Give him the chance to, and Westerberg will wear you down. I initially took Come Feel Me Tremble for a heap of leftovers, but the more I listened, the less I believed it. My constant policy is to evaluate music in eudemonic terms. In less highfalutin language: I like it if it makes me happy and dislike it if it doesn't. I think this is the only reasonable way to judge pop music, not to like it because it was influential (like old Replacements records) or dismiss it because it's culturally irrelevant (like new Paul Westerberg albums).

Here's the deal: I like the way this guy sings, I like the way he plays guitar and I like the way his amplifier sounds. He's funny, he's got soul, and I think his methodology has a perverse integrity. If a few years ago it seemed that Westerberg was mutating into Elvis Costello--with all the impressive but dull craftsmanship that sometimes entailed--I'm pleased to report that Westerberg is now hewing closer to John Prine and a make-believe backup band composed of Keith Richards and a couple of tipsy hillbillies. With any luck--and I'm counting on it--that acoustic album coming out next year will contain his best song since "Longer."

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