Paul Westerberg‘s sound supposedly made a formal break from its Replacements roots a few years back with Suicaine Gratifaction, which may have been a bit too busy for its own good, but it showed promising signs of life in cautious experimentation on Westerberg’s part. Well, that album kinda tanked, despite some strong songs, and 2002 found him holing up in his basement and coming out rejuvenated from the effort. The resulting discs, Stereo and Mono (the latter under his Grandpaboy alias), made Westerberg sound like he’d chained Keith Richards up in his basement studio, so even though the ragged Replacements spirit hung from the record like party streamers, it was a completely different vibe from pretty much anything else the solo Westerberg had offered.
Even now, it’s still easy to close your eyes, listen, and connect Westerberg to his ‘Mats glory days—that voice teetering on the edge of no return will be with him until his final days—but it’s way past time to stop comparing anything Westerberg does now to “Bastards of Young” or “Here Comes a Regular”. Different time, different guy, and we fans probably couldn’t see through the golden glow of the past to know the next Westerberg classic when we heard it anyway.
That’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, separating the Replacements from Westerberg accepts that Westerberg’s at a different point in his career—no longer the sharp-eyed kid who could make getting drunk and throwing up the most poignant part of loneliness. On the other, it can also be a backdoor way of saying that his best days are behind him. The Mono/Stereo combo was the most vital Westerberg had sounded in a while, but it’s difficult to find any songs on either record that come close to overshadowing his emergence as one of the world’s youngest old souls. Taken on his own, the new Westerberg is enjoyable and ragged, but he’s also prone to escape behind loud guitars or cheeky lyrics that are beneath his ability. Come Feel Me Tremble doesn’t do a whole lot to clarify things.
Continuing in the same vein as Mono/Stereo, Come Feel Me Tremble has a throw-it-to-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks feel; the word “polish” doesn’t belong in the same room as Come Feel Me Tremble. In fact, it’s likely that several songs here are Westerberg’s first takes (he confesses as much on the tour documentary DVD of the same name). That’s not really a problem, though; Westerberg, as much as anyone, is a perfect fit for a little distortion, a little amp buzz, a little tape hiss. A lot of Come Feel Me Tremble, though, doesn’t seem like it was thought about for too long, and that’s most readily obvious in first-draft lyrics that Westerberg could have spent some time sharpening. Come Feel Me Tremble is all about the feel of cranked amps echoing off the basement walls and the occasional ballad that tries to make up in yearning vocals what it lacks in precision.
But you know what? I’m not sure that it matters. The old saw goes that the best punk rock songs, while you’re listening to them, sound like the greatest thing on Earth—never mind whether you remember much about them afterwards. In that sense, a lot of Come Feel Me Tremble totally blows the doors off the hinges, even though Westerberg supposedly plays every instrument—even the ones he doesn’t know how to play. For example, Westerberg doesn’t play drums so much as bash them relentlessly, but that Bam-Bam style percussion is the perfect foundation for slab after slab of Stones and Faces guitar. Over the course of the record, you get plaintive ballads like “Meet Me Down the Alley” and “Never Felt Like This Before”, throw-away blues braggadocio in “Dirty Diesel” and “Wild & Lethal”, and adrenaline-fueled rockers like “Soldier of Misfortune” and “Knockin’ Em Back”. Pretty much representative samples of the whole Westerberg songbook.
A few real gems lay hidden amongst Westerberg’s home-taping sprawl. Two versions of “Crackle & Drag” detail a suicide with fantastic clarity, while “Pine Box”—reportedly Westerberg’s take on his father’s wartime experiences—is as ferocious as anything he’s ever done. Both songs are really the only instances where Westerberg slips into a third-person storytelling mode, and the differences are telling. Westerberg’s first-person narratives are becoming notable for their distance, which is ironic for someone with a reputation for crafting universally resonant confessionals. Maybe songs about other people don’t hold the same risks of revelation in Westerberg’s mind, or maybe he feels like he’s said it all before. Whatever the case, lyric junkies may starve trying to make it through Come Feel Me Tremble.
The album closes with a cover of Jackson Browne’s “These Days”, and it may be the most accurate depiction of his own life that Westerberg has sung in some time. Lyrics like “These days I seem to think a lot / About the things I forgot to do / For you”, “to live the life that I have made in song / Well, it’s just that I’ve been losing so long”, and “Don’t confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them” paint the accepted Westerberg mythos in vivid colors. For all of the immediate glories that Come Feel Me Tremble holds, the absence of Westerberg as confessional singer/songwriter might be what lingers the most. 2004 promises the release of Folker, an album that reportedly will feature Westerberg in a more contemplative mode. For now, though, we do get Westerberg’s other side captured on tape with gleeful abandon: uncluttered guitar riffs that probably peeled the paint from the basement walls. It’ll more than do.