Talent Show

Paul Westerberg gives up on the charts, and rediscovers his muse

By the end of the decade, a newly sober Westerberg looked around to find both his marriage and band falling apart. With Mars leaving the group, their final effort, 1990's All Shook Down is a Replacements album in name only. With minimal contributions from Stinson and Dunlap, the record featured an array of studio musicians performing Westerberg's darkest material. The Replacements broke up on July 4, 1991, giving their last performance in Chicago's Grant Park.

Westerberg's first official solo effort, 1993's 14 Songs was a schizophrenic album that found the newly freed singer-songwriter unable to reconcile the raucous songs of his youth with the thoughtful and mellowed themes his latter day attentions had gravitated toward.

His sophomore album, 1996's Eventually was an even bigger enigma. Although many of the songs were still well-written, much of the album seemed limp and uninspired. With only a handful of rock numbers, the record was derided for a light, adult-contemporary sound that left many longtime fans wondering what had happened to the ex-Mat.

Apparently, the record also puzzled Warner Bros., the label Westerberg had called home for more than a decade.

"It was a classic end of your record deal where they don't give it much of a chance," he says now. "People weren't aware of it. So I kind of went out there with a feeling of, 'It's been buried for me already.'"

For his part, Westerberg makes no apologies for the album. "It's underrated; I still stand by it," he says. "There was definitely some very good stuff on the record."

After the Eventually tour, Westerberg returned home to Minnesota, only to find himself in an inexplicable, but deeply serious state of depression.

"I'm not even certain that I've been able to put my finger on it yet," he explains. "I'm sure some people will say it's because I'm approaching 40, or because the album didn't sell well. I mean, it didn't feel like any of that. It didn't feel like 'I'm not a success--boy, am I sad.' I even went into the tour with a vague sort of feeling like 'this is not what I should be doing with my life right now.'"

The Eventually tour was, unlike the album, a resounding success. Performing with a crack band of veterans (including power-pop guitarist Tommy Keene and former Prince drummer Michael Bland), Westerberg brought life to even his most compromised solo material. Longtime fans and those newly exposed to the growing legend of the Replacements came out in droves. But the public success was little conciliation for Westerberg.

"I think it even deepened the sense of, 'Well, if the shows were sold-out and good, and the crowd was wild, and the playing was great--and there's still dissatisfaction, it means that there's something deeper wrong.'"

This deepening sense of disillusionment led Westerberg through an intense period of introspection and reassessment. He found himself drawn not to the guitar, but to the piano, "because I was so depressed at the time it was difficult for me to just sit and strum the guitar and 'make music.' I'm much better if I just sit at the piano and just play melodies. Before I ever wrote songs or words--I just sat at the piano and played. Out of that, the record was kind of born."

Suicaine Gratifaction is the frequently unsettling sound of an artist realizing that after nearly 20 years of trying to establish his identity as a musician, his music would only work again if he could escape the long shadow of his former self.

"By the time I got to this record, all notion of 'I'm going to write for my supposed audience' was gone," he says. "I even felt like I don't have an audience anymore--and that felt good. It felt like when I started. I have no idea who's going to like this, and I don't care."

That particular sentiment, translated through his latest batch of songs, is what makes Suicaine Gratifaction (released on Capitol Records) a stirring return to form. While the album isn't far removed from either of his previous solo works musically, the honesty and irony--the two elements that always made Westerberg's Replacements-era material so compelling--are back.

No longer the youthful hellion singing "Fuck School," Westerberg opens the album with the lilting acoustic ballad, "It's a Wonderful Lie," asking "How am I looking?/I don't want the truth." And he wastes little time tackling the questions that have dogged his solo career. "What am I doing/I ain't in my youth/I'm past my prime/Or was that just a pose?/It's a wonderful lie/I still get by on those."

Even before Spin magazine put him on the cover in 1991 and declared him, "The Soul of Rock and Roll," Westerberg was aware of and uncomfortable with the expectations placed on him by fans and critics to serve as a savior for a fading rock 'n' roll ethic. As if to underscore the point, Westerberg ends the song with an admonition, "Don't pin your hopes/Or pin your dreams/To misanthropes or guys like me."

For Westerberg, the album's lyrics aren't as deeply cryptic as they may seem.

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