The easiest way to enjoy Folker is to try and forget all that you know about Paul Westerberg.
Never mind that he’s the sanctified underdog godfather of slacker garage rock. Momentarily separate him from the Replacements, the shaggy dog quartet he led to the top of the ‘80s rock underground that in turn cemented his cult status. Westerberg is no longer interested in starting a sonic bar fight; he’d rather fan the lingering embers of ferocity. He wants to shed that alcohol-soaked skin and slide into the guise of a one-man band, crafting his own Exile on a Minneapolis Street hoodoo in the solitude of his home basement.
Forget that his solo career has been about as shaky and uneven as a ‘Mats live show, but don’t lose sight of the fact that Westerberg is shaky and uneven by nature. Remember that early forays into self-discovery and maturity like “Sixteen Blue” were stacked next to the juvenile buffoonery of “Gary’s Got a Boner”. This is especially important, folks, because Folker is a ragamuffin record: loose, crusty, draped in shabby anti-couture with trails of tape hiss and microphone saturation. This is actually good news and not a gripe; vintage Westerberg is marked by warts-and-all heart-and-soul (see: the ‘Mats and the recent Stereo), not the polished precision of a “professional songwriter” (see: Eventually and Suicaine Gratifaction).
Bypass the members of the Cult of Paul as they wait patiently—fingers crossed behind their collective backs—for a Westerberg solo record that’s as strong as Tim. Folker may not be the definitive answer to devotees’ prayers, but it is a notable addition to his oeuvre. Westerberg’s aging, and although he’s still the cynical, love-weary, endearing brat of yesteryear, he realizes (and often relishes in) his limitations. Witness the Keefy rocker “Gun Shy”, in which he sneers: “I learned to tell it like it ain’t / When I run this fast I faint and fade.” This song, with its juicy guitar riff firing off little tracers of jangling descent, is evidence that Westerberg still matters when he’s not simply going through the motions.
There’s more that you should know about Folker. It is a continuation of Stereo‘s hit-record-and-lay-it-down-clown philosophy, an unapologetic embrace of fuck-all DIY. Instruments lazily fall off the beat, extraneous sounds are left unfiltered, Westerberg’s voice is as unabashedly ragged and rundown as it’s ever been. This lackadaisical presentation is a perfect match for the topics Westerberg addresses: a shotgun City Hall wedding to “a gal in a two buck dress” in “$100 Groom”; the distant longing of “What About Mine?” and “Any Way It’s All Right”; the bittersweet paternal portrait in the Dylan-esque “My Dad”; and the aging angst simmering beneath the surface of “When Will We Arrive?”.
Lyrically, Westerberg remains the restless, uncomfortable scribe that once hollered “look into my eyes and tell me I’m satisfied”, albeit with the realities of middle-age setting in. In the sleepy eyed snap-crackle of “23 Years”, he liberally slurs: “23 hours ago you called my phone / Said ‘get your ass down here so we can talk’ / 23 years ago I would run every mile / But I’ll call you in the morning”. He also retains his sharp, cynical sense of humor, especially in the closer “Folk Star”, a sneering lampoon aimed at phonies in the music business: “You don’t sing for children or their parents in the nighttime in a bar / You sing for yourself, you stand up for nothing as far as I can tell / You’re a folk star / With your plastic red guitar”.
Folker can have the tendency to be a multi-tracked train wreck, derailed by Westerberg’s typical indulgence for songs that go on a bit too long, and sometimes his braying weariness can be testing. But Westerberg’s always been about doing it his way or no way (remember the defiant “Bastards of Young” video?), and when you combine that fact with some bona fide classic Paul rockers (the jumpy “As Far As I Know” and the aforementioned “Gun Shy”), his continued steely resolve is admirable.
As a homebrew record, Folker is more McCartney than The Basement Tapes: kinda funky in parts, but as far as fans are concerned, more like a beloved blanket in most. As long as Westerberg’s acolytes can follow my instructions to cleanse their minds of his history to avoid a self-imposed letdown, Folker will feel as close to heaven as they’ve been able to get in recent years.