Fakin' to Be

A new piano man? Recovering punk Paul Westerberg

Fifteen years ago Paul Westerberg was crowned by critics and college radio as the greatest real-rock hero since the then-reigning king of post-punk anomie and ambitious intentions, Elvis Costello. Of course, all Westerberg ultimately succeeded in doing was clearing the way for some skinny blond cutie-pie from semirural Washington to renovate his posture, up his ampage, and show him where he screwed up the first time around.

Today the Replacements' legacy lives on most notably in the Goo Goo Dolls, a world-class fad, who have exploited a side of the Replacements we barely knew existed back in 1984--the side that was aggressive but not challenging, angry but not committed, funny but not pointed. It was vague on class, crummy on gender, and oblivious to race. Basically a suburban, selfish side of the band that was more John Hughes than Johnny Rotten, but spoiled to the core nonetheless. When the Goo Goos gin-blossomed into one of the biggest hit rock bands of 1998, they did so by marrying a maudlin Westerberg song like "Here Comes a Regular" to a melodramatic and solipsistic one like "The Ledge." Anything previous to Tim was left for the graying grousers at the C.C. Club.

Disdainful of the idea that his young life's passion should be wasted on massaging the soft spots of mildly conflicted frat boys in Buffalo, major 'Mat Paul Westerberg has chosen to follow his own trajectory, emerging as the self-important song-poet of early Middle Age. Mid-American rock finally has its Elvis Costello. His new Suicaine Gratifaction (Capitol) struggles to generate a sense of Hard-Won Maturity but winds up sounding as aimlessly pathetic as the Goo Goos seem triumphant. Overwritten, boring, forced, and rocking only by conceit, Suicaine makes Lucinda Williams's criminally overrated album of regurgitated roots tropes, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, sound as effortless as "Long Tall Sally."

Like all Westerberg issues since about 1987, Suicaine tries to argue that the earnest iconoclasm and hearty self-loathing of old are meaningful only to the extent that they can be dragged out of the garage and sanctimoniously sullied. Throughout the album he treats his old self with the m.o. of the condescending child psychologist he seems almost to wish he'd had. "I get up in the morning with a head full of rain/Take an amphetamine and a crushed right brain," he sings on the album's opening cut, "It's a Wonderful Lie," as if cringing before a mirror. He continues, "How am I lookin'? I ain't in my youth/Am I past my prime, or was that just a pose/It's a wonderful lie, I still get by on those."

Oh, if it were true. What makes this series of self-reflexive apologias different from the ones on any other solo album is that instead of arousing rancor, or even pity, they merely inspire told-you-so's from disgruntled fans. The intimation that maturation means a purging of yuks and a mistrust of instincts makes Westerberg's rave-ups ("Lookin' Out Forever," "Final Hurrah") seem empty and officious. At the same time, his still-inhuman ease with an anthem turns them into perfunctory successes: Once you stop caring that this is music that strenuously begs you not to care about it, you almost sort of can.

Almost. I wouldn't mind that the Tin Pan Alley piano number "Self-Defense" is overwrought if I felt that there was something more at stake in its ornate melody and opaque metaphors than a wordy rewrite of "Sixteen Blue." More serious apologies are demanded for the banality that is "Bookmark," in which a flower pressed between the pages of a novel serves as a metaphor for injured youth, missed opportunities, and failed love. This is a song Jewel's handlers might implore her to leave on the cutting room floor.

It feels like these verses have crawled off the pages of Rod McKuen and into my hum-sphere. I'd give back my copy of Hootenanny to have them gone.

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