“This is rock and roll recorded poorly, played in a hurry, with sweaty hands and unsure reasons. How it sounds, what it says, who played what, is irrelevant. It feels right. This is my blood.”
There must be some good fungi growing in Minnesota’s water pipes this year. How else would the state’s two finest songwriters seem to have simultaneously hit upon the same idea for creative revitalization? Bob Dylan (on Love and Theft) and Paul Westerberg (on Stereo) both seem to have shrugged off the constant expectations and analyses (such as this review) of their music and decided to just have fun doing it again. It’s a simple idea, and for both songwriters it works amazingly well. For evidence in the Dylan case, get his new album and then see him live. In Westerberg’s case, unless he decides to grace us by expanding on his recent mini-tour of McVirginTower stores, you’ll have to settle for the excellent Stereo, which includes the new Grandpaboy album, Mono.
The above quote, scribbled by Westerberg’s alter-ego “Grandpaboy” for those opening Mono, is perhaps the most appropriate description of a journey since “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” was placed above the gates of Hades. Aptly titled, Mono (the whole album was recorded in mono - it’s stranger than you might think to have the same sound coming out of both speakers) finds Grandpaboy enlisting the support of “Elrod Puce”, “Zeke Pine”, and “Henry Twiddle” to make his latest effort an important contribution to the rock and roll canon. But any fan of a certain Minneapolis band, who furthered punk DIY recording in the early ‘80s by infusing it with the dying art of the rock and roll songwriter, will recognize lines like “A leap of faith or a jump of stupid / Either way don’t know why I do it” as an unadulterated Paul Westerbergism. Replacements fans have spent years watching the skies for this second coming, but instead of bursting through the ozone in a fiery blaze, Mono quietly crawled out from under the house that Paul Westerberg built (quite literally—he recorded it in his basement).
The bass player from Axl Rose’s latest Coke Money Reunion Tour, and more importantly Westerberg’s former right-hand man in the ‘Mats, Tommy Stinson, purportedly stopped by to help make Mono. Not surprisingly, Mr. Rose’s self-delusion has bloated along with his stomach. Tommy’s new employer apparently wants him to work exclusively for Guns N’ Roses, so his contribution to Mono isn’t mentioned anywhere. Any fan of The Replacements will instantly recognize Stinson’s work, though.
Mono is concrete evidence that Westerberg’s ability to lead musicians into forays as rich as those produced during The Replacements’ Let It Be/Pleased to Meet Me period has not dimmed. “Between Love and Like” sounds like its pair of absurd, semi-doomed lovers would make great afternoon tea partners with the lovers from “Swingin’ Party”. “I ain’t got anything, to say to anyone, anymore” from “AAA” is certainly from the same mouth that belted out “Knockin’ on Mine” on 14 Songs.
Paul Westerberg and his motley crew have never sounded so like the Rolling Stones through a garage amp as they do on “Eyes Like Sparks”, in which Westerberg repeats the lines “Your eyes like sparks / My heart like gasoline” over and over. On paper that’s probably not very impressive, but when you add a John Bonhamesque drum beat and an early 1970s Keith Richards guitar sound, it makes a hell of a song for driving fast with the windows down.
Just as anyone who steps on a rattlesnake knows to be on the watch for its mate, anyone who listens to Paul Westerberg knows that we can’t get the rock star without getting the poet. The only thing missing from Mono is an acoustic ballad (a la “Even Here We Are”, “Skyway”, “Sadly Beautiful”), but a whole album of Westerberg’s other side accompanies Mono.
The warts-and-all recording process continues on Stereo (Westerberg’s warts, of course, being an essential part of his charm). Songs are cut short as tapes run out. A guitar strum disappears as quickly as it is birthed. “We May Be the Ones”, a ballad strong enough to stand up to “Here Comes a Regular”, ends with a faint, clunky keyboard solo performed by two-year-old John Paul Westerberg. Irony’s closest ally, Westerberg sings the chorus “We may well be the ones / To set this world on its ear / If not, then why are we here” over John Paul’s off-key pounding, as the serious certainty of the song yields to a more whimsical nature.
Perhaps as another homage to his newfound fatherhood, Westerberg imbues a century-old Christian song, “Mr. Rabbit”, with a pop guitar hook that makes it impossible to listen to only once. The chorus, “every little soul’s gonna shine”, is converted from its religious roots into as shameless a feel-good moment as the holding up of lighters at the end of a rock concert.
If Paul Westerberg were an organized religion instead of an awkward midwesterner, lines like “Boring enormous / When will they inform us / That up close we still look afraid” would be worthy of being made into stain-glassed windows. Stereo is slightly eclipsed by Mono‘s brilliance because Paul consciously pours more of himself into Stereo. The less Paul Westerberg cares about his work, the better it is.
No doubt about it, though, these two albums are the strongest contribution to Westerberg’s canon since The Replacements’ days. With the release of Stereo and Mono, Paul works nicely as the fairy godfather, willing to grant his fans their every wish by making their present every bit as glorious as his past.