Paul Westerberg re-emerges

The enigmatic and much revered Paul Westerberg
Steve Cohen

Of all of the interviews I have ever conducted with musicians in the Twin Cities, I would guess that at least two-thirds of my interviewees attribute some part of their history and upbringing to Paul Westerberg or the Replacements. No exaggeration—the influence Westerberg has on this city's music scene is palpable. Unlike our state's other musical icons, Bob Dylan and Prince, Westerberg and the 'Mats always stayed just far enough off the national radar to give them permanent underdog status, spawning a whole generation of new local musicians who have mastered the art of teetering between going down in flames and going down in infamy.

Because of this far-reaching influence, it is rare in my profession to hear anyone speak poorly of Westerberg. Which sets a strange stage for a conversation about his new album. Do people adore Westerberg because he continually puts out solid work, or do people love the idea of Westerberg so much that his body of work is granted critical leniency?

In the case of his new online-only release, 49:00, which is being referred to as an album but is actually one 43-minute-and-55-second track, Westerberg walks a thin line between playing and mixing his songs so recklessly that they are barely listenable and pushing the limits of his sound toward something groundbreaking and brilliant. Westerberg is good at walking this line—he practically invented this line—and it makes for an album that is simultaneously aggravating and exhilarating.

The songs themselves—or the segments of the track that could be divvied up as songs, given that nothing on 49:00 is separated or labeled—are, for the most part, straightforward and representative of Westerberg's songwriting style. It's the way the songs are mixed that is unusual. At times, songs fade in and out on top of one another so dramatically that it sounds like someone is fiddling with the dial on an old AM radio. At first the effect is jarring and somewhat off-putting, akin to listening to the Beatles' "Revolution 9" when you really just wanted to hear "Revolution." After the initial shock wears off, however, the cross-fading becomes entrancing and helps to bind the album into a cohesive unit.

In a digital age filled with iSingles and ringtones, Westerberg's approach is refreshing. He's made a concept album, an art form that is dying faster than the compact disc, and while many of the "songs" are strong enough to stand as individual tracks, they are most enjoyable when nestled between ramshackle guitar overlays and sonic protrusions.

Opener "Tell Me Who You Gonna Marry?" is up-tempo and catchy, and it sets the stage for an album about heartbreak, rejection, and feeling like a misfit. "With or Without Her" and "Something in My Life Is Missing" expound on that theme, and for the first third of the album the songs only run into one another at their beginnings and ends, as if a DJ is mixing together a set. By the time the album reaches the halfway mark, though, Westerberg gets more heavy-handed with the cross-fading and overlapping, leading to a climax of cut-and-paste covers of songs like "Rocket Man," "Born to Be Wild," and "I Think I Love You." You can practically picture Westerberg fiddling around with old equipment in his basement, recording snippets of songs on top of one another and laughing maniacally.

Possibly the most heart-wrenching ballad on the album, "Goodnight Sweet Prince," is also the most entrenched with layering and fading, which is typical of Westerberg's seemingly self-destructive nature: Just when he's about to lay all his cards on the table, he makes sure that his vulnerability is covered in a thick layer of fuzz.

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