10 - 6
(Let It Be, 1984)
I once read an article about the Replacements (not unlike this one) where the author claimed the band was the ‘80s equivalent to the Beatles (a toxic comparison for a variety of reasons). Curiously, I always thought that “Favorite Thing” sort of sounded like an indie-rock reinterpretation of a mid-‘60s Beatles song. This is the Replacements at their most virile, and it’s always the first song I play for somebody unacquainted with the band, as it highlights both Westerberg’s peerless pop sensibilities and the group’s unbridled vehemence. It’s the most raucous performance on Let It Be, and reveals every member in top form (especially Bob Stinson, whose guitar solo is one of my favorite ‘Mats moments—in fact, it’s largely responsible for the song creeping into the top 10).
(Let It Be, 1984)
One of the things that defines Paul Westerberg’s songwriting is his preternatural ability to approach these very adolescent subjects from an adult perspective. When I was in high school, I experienced plenty of horrible feelings that I couldn’t really articulate. I remember listening to “Sixteen Blue” and feeling like Westerberg was was sympathizing with me directly. It really is the hardest age, or at least feels like it in the midst of everything. That tail-end of those teenage years is when you’re still too young to reap any of the palpable benefits of adulthood and most of society still distrusts you, but you’re also all of a sudden shouldering these alien “grown-up” responsibilities (like “driving your ma to the bank”) and nobody’s looking out for you, either. Put frankly, it’s the worst of both worlds. Not to mention those uncouth elementary sexual experiences (the aspect that seems to be the emphasis of “Sixteen Blue”). Good riddance.
(Pleased to Meet Me, 1987)
“Skyway” is more elegant than the other token Westerberg one man/one guitar ballads, “Here Comes a Regular” and “Within Your Reach”—and that’s why it’s better. It’s a brief, scenic detour on Pleased to Meet Me, linking rasping rockers “Red Red Wine” and closer “Can’t Hardly Wait” with two minutes of elevated acoustic beauty. Westerberg regularly sees a girl pass through “the Skyway” from the street below, and admires her beauty from afar. Improbably, he bumps into her after days of this remote adoration, but is ironically too shy and self-doubting to say anything to her. The fragile-sounding 12-string guitar reflects the author’s own emotional frailty—on the last line, Westerberg reaches for a note he isn’t really capable of hitting, and it’s truly one of his most sincere recorded moments. A veritable Midwest standard.
(Pleased to Meet Me, 1987)
It’s not confidential information that Westerberg and Co. idolized Big Star. During live performances, the band frequently covered the cult group’s songs, and there are several riffs and melodic tropes scattered throughout the ‘Mats canon that bear a suspicious resemblance to Chilton-penned compositions. Westerberg decided to take it one step further, however, immortalizing Big Star’s creative helmsman Alex Chilton with this titular track. And it is great. In the bridge, Westerberg sings what we could have already assumed—“I never travel far / Without a little Big Star”—and then launches into one of the band’s most memorable solos. An inspired love letter from one underachiever to his antecedent.
Tim rocks immediately out of the gate. The verses to opener “Hold My Life” are largely inscrutable, but one thing’s for certain: Paul Westerberg is spiraling out of control. In the chorus, Westerberg becomes lucid briefly, pleading for the listener to “hold his life” or he “just might lose it”, a disturbingly clever allusion to self-inflicted annihilation (and a destination Westerberg and the rest of his band were most certainly headed towards). “Hold My Life” is a great summary of the band’s Tim-era; the production on this cut (and the rest of the record) is more muscular than any Replacements’ song preceding it. It sort of sounds like good hair metal if you’ll bear with me (based on the ‘Mats impassive, faithful cover of “Black Diamond” off Let It Be, consumable pop/hard-rock was an influence on the band in some sense at least) or Born in the U.S.A.-era Bruce Springsteen with a definitive punk rock edge. “Hold My Life” is the perfect first track on Tim, a record where the band hits the gas and doesn’t really ever let up.