Talent Show

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

"It's weird because there's less of me speaking to [the] audience here than there has ever been," he says. "And it's funny because [producer] Don [Was] read a lot of that into the songs as well. He thought it was like me talking about my life and my career. And a lot of it has nothing to do with anyone who's going to listen to the record." After a pause, he adds with a slight laugh, "It does fit though, doesn't it?"

Although the record features a number of high-profile session players, including drummer Jim Keltner, and keyboardist Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers) and a big name producer in Don Was, a majority of the tracks on the album were recorded and mixed by Westerberg in his small home studio. The gentle touches of cello, horns, and pedal steel--which might have seemed out of place on a Replacements album--fit comfortably within the context of Westerberg's newer material.

If his songs have grown up, then Westerberg's voice, once a scorched, passionate wail, has also matured. The often unpredictable melodies and spare arrangements of the songs showcase his growing ability to use his voice as an added instrument of expression. Indeed, a great part of the appeal of Suicaine Gratifaction is the chance to hear Westerberg's vocals in such an uncluttered setting.

To his credit, Was doesn't let his production intrude on the album's dark mood. Was and Westerberg spent a considerable amount of time in the studio before deciding that less was more.

"We spent a lot of time and money in the studio in New York and L.A. simply chasing after something that wasn't there," Westerberg says. "We were overdubbing things and adding to it and trying to make things better until we realized we had to go back to essentially the first takes, and most times the rough mixes, and use those."

One of the album's highlights, "The Fugitive Kind," begins with a morose Westerberg singing over a light piano accompaniment: "I've been bought/It's quite a scandal/Just got out alive/I gave 'em all that they could handle/Then I took a dive." Midway through, the song kicks in with a pulsating beat as Westerberg cries out, "Is this where I belong?" Later, his vocals reach a familiar crescendo that recalls the tortured wail of 1985's "Bastards of Young." With equal parts defiance and pride he declares, "I'm a bad idea whose time has come."

While he "rocks" less on this album than on any Replacements record (or, for that matter, 14 Songs), Westerberg picks and chooses his spots carefully--and the effect is both more satisfying and less calculated than on any of his other recent efforts.

"If you don't buy this record right away, it doesn't matter, because I think you're gonna hear it sooner or later," he says. "You know, it wasn't made to sound like this moment. There's a timelessness to it--it's so stripped down that it could have been recorded in any conceivable era."

Having spent nearly two decades on the cusp of commercial success, Westerberg is realistic about his current prospects. "Will I get to that sort of big exploding stardom thing? I doubt it," he says. "And that's a relief. But I think my career is going to continue to last and take little turns and twists. But I much prefer it this way than to go to the top, burn out, and go away forever."

While it's unlikely that an album as personal and complex as Suicaine Gratifaction can penetrate a music market saturated with shrill pop divas, cute boy-bands, and faceless alternative acts that seem to rise and fall with each passing week, Westerberg is unfazed.

"For me, the worse the better," he says. "Shit, when we started out it was the most exciting time because we were essentially competing with Loverboy and Night Ranger. In the end, I don't care about that anyway. For me, it's not about whether they're going to play my songs on the radio for two weeks."

A bigger problem for Westerberg will be promoting Suicaine Gratifaction, since he has all but decided not to tour behind the album.

"There's always a certain amount of time after I get done playing a tour that I hate it," he says. "And then after a while I start to miss it and I want to get back to it. But it's taken a long time, and I still don't feel like I want to get back up there and do it."

He maintains that his decision not to tour has nothing to do with his chronic back problems, or a desire not to have to play old Replacements warhorses. "No, I made this decision three years ago when I started making this music," he says. "I stand by that till this moment, because those songs were born of that.

"People will probably look at me and say it's because he's a dad, or he has a bad back or whatever. But as soon as I get the itch again to play, I'll do it. And I'll do it with a bad back and a baby strapped to my hip if I have to."

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