"It's too late to turn back, here we go"
-- The Replacements, "Talent Show"
It was April of 1991. My ex-fiancé and I were wandering around the mall, sleepwalking through the rituals of book and record buying that we'd engaged in as a real couple only a week before. We were in the midst of a traumatic breakup -- initiated by me 40 days before the wedding, with regrettable out-of-the-blue precision -- and favored an awkward illusion of normalcy over a cold-turkey descent into shock. It was the first major decision I'd made in my scant 22 years, the first one with lasting consequences. On that day, I came across Don't Tell a Soul in a record store bargain bin. I'd never heard the Replacements, only of them, and thought I'd give it a try -- they were supposed to be a sad-sack band, and I was definitely in the mood for that. I've since found out that there are "better" Replacements records, and ones that I listen to far more frequently, but Don't Tell a Soul is the only one that's tied inextricably with a painful time and place in my life, the first one that I linked to intense personal experience.
A lot of my response to it, then and even now, was a kind of curious reshaping of reality. Paul Westerberg was singing about his career frustrations as much as he was singing to the women of his life, but I managed to pull kernels of personal meaning from most of the songs. The thick studio soup that passed for the record's production was irrelevant; I was in a state where I could see the buried skeletons of Westerberg's songs peeking through, and like some guilt-stricken archaeologist, I pieced the bones together according to my own vision. Some tracks were easy. I was as prone to undulled emotion as any 22-year old, and as she and I endured the grind of not letting the past cleanly become the past, vitriol-fueled cuts like "I Won't" or "Anywhere But Here" were all too easy to inhabit on the frustrated drive home.
It was an incredibly wearing time, when a sense of release, of having done the right thing, ebbed and flowed over a strife-polished weariness that has never left me. I've always wondered if I have an old soul, am just jaded, suffer from some mild form of chronic depression that prevents happiness from ever fully blossoming, or if I'm just an overly analytic moody-butt. Whatever the reason, that personality trait gained dominance in this breakup, and Don't Tell a Soul introduced me to the original old-soul: Westerberg. Even though Don't Tell a Soul is generally maligned by Mats fans, Westerberg filled the album with unassuming lyrical gems like "Count twenty paces at dawn / Count twenty questions we'll get wrong" ("Back to Back"), "In a black and white picture / There's a lot of grey bunk" ("Asking Me Lies"), and "Lonely, I guess that's where I'm from" ("I'll Be You"). Even if a song like "Rock and Roll Ghost" didn't hold the startling, detailed brilliance of "Here Comes a Regular", it still held a tangible weariness. And I wallowed in it.
"Achin' to Be" was another matter entirely. The gently detailed tale of a girl who's "kind of like an artist who uses paints no more", who's "kind of like a poet / Who finds it hard to speak", perfectly described this woman who would soon, with graduation and the attendant move, fade from my life completely. I read "Achin' to Be" (and "Darlin' One") with all the fondness that had existed in our relationship, even amidst the absolutely psychotic episodes that sprang fully formed from both of our skulls.
Like I said, there are Replacements albums that hold up better, and even Westerberg has since dismissed Don't Tell a Soul's radio-courting production. There are extremely strong songs there, though, and plenty of emotional honesty to wrap yourself up in. It might sound weird to be so fond of a record that's so closely associated with emotional turmoil, but Don't Tell a Soul was the first record that I felt was distinctly mine. I found it myself and I wrote my own meaning into it. Every relationship since has had its record (whether the other party knew it or not), and I could easily rave about emotionally pivotal records like Richard Buckner's Bloomed, Crowded House's Together Alone, or even Tom Waits' Bone Machine. Don't Tell a Soul, though, was the first, and for that, it'll hold a place over almost every other record.