Music Features

Overlooked Albums #29: Paul Westerberg - 14 Songs

“The Replacements: Almost America’s Best Band?” So read the cover of the April 1988 issue of CREEM magazine, its readers’ poll naming Pleased To Meet Me the #2 album after U2’s The Joshua Tree. Voted the #3 group after U2 and R.E.M., The Replacements were poised for greater glory. But this flirtation with fame would take its toll. It didn’t help that they drank, though drink was fuel for some of their best performances. Drinking was only part of the problem. In truth, no-one could agree on the direction the band should take, whether they should stick to their punk roots or take on a more commercial approach to please their new label. Bob Stinson, the band’s founding member, had left for good in 1986 after a power struggle with Paul Westerberg, but trouble kept brewing just the same.

Paul Westerberg had been The Replacements’ main creative force through thick and thin. As such, he lived under a great deal of pressure, and gaining a hard-fought sobriety in 1990 didn’t mend his fractious relationship with the group. That year’s All Shook Down started out as a solo effort, but label politics forced him to work with the band, resulting in an uneven album that didn’t please the fanbase. After that failure, the circle couldn’t hold. This uneasy compromise would last through a dreary tour that ended with the band’s onstage break up on July 4, 1991. It was a sad Independence Day.

For Westerberg, it was time to take the wheel. He wrote the music for Singles, a 1992 film directed by Cameron Crowe. After that, he recorded his first solo album, this time for real. 

14 Songs isn’t your average singer-songwriter effort. It’s got band dynamics and a relaxed vibe that recalls early seventies albums by The Stones and The Faces. In fact, Ian McLagan lends his talent here on Silver Naked Ladies, his rollicking piano bringing back good memories. This doesn’t mean nostalgia was a goal for Westerberg. As a songwriter, he tips his hat to his influences, but they only work as building blocks to his own musical world. Everything we love about him is found here: the self-deprecating humor, the off-hand lyrics, the wry views, and the hopeless romanticism.

Knocking On Mine, the album’s opener, places wisdom above common knowledge; not surprising for a man who once said he writes for smart people. Westerberg sings his lyrics like there wasn’t much effort behind them, using misdirection like a magician with a deck of cards. Runaway Wind, for instance, was an odd choice for a single. This is a folk-pop tune about a woman who’s given up her dreams, and there’s certainly no other MTV videos with lyrics like these: “You trade your telescope for a keyhole / Make way for the gray that’s in your brown / As dreams make way for plans / See ya watch life from the stands.” Some people complain that Westerberg sold out after The Replacements, but there’s no evidence of that here. In truth, at this point of time he was no longer hampered by group politics. He lets the songs speak for themselves, and content dictate the arrangements. Dice Behind Your Shade has a loose, Stonesy beat, but there’s punk aggression on Down Love, and those looking for Big Star power-pop will find it on A Few Minutes of Silence. Mannequin Shop even provides some comic relief with a cynical view of plastic surgery.

The album also has its share of love songs, enough to fill a rom-com soundtrack, but in Westerberg’s world there’s never a happy ending. Relationships are hard to maintain. All his love songs, even the happy ones, have a tinge of darkness, sadness, or regret. On Things, the realist in him comes through with the line, “I could use some breathing room but I’m still in love with you.”

Black Eyed Susan, one of the album’s highlights, was recorded in Westerberg’s kitchen. It has an otherworldly quality that couldn’t be reproduced in a studio, so the home recording was kept. This no-frills approach serves the studio tracks as well, which is one of the album’s strengths.

Westerberg has carved a long career for himself after 14 Songs through major label and independent releases. It’s had its share of ups, downs, and difficult moments, including a home accident that did some damage to the ring finger on his left hand. Through it all, Westerberg remains one of the best rock n’ roll songwriters.

On October 3, 2012, it was announced that Westerberg and Tommy Stinson were recording an EP to raise money for Replacements guitarist Slim Dunlap, who is facing a tough recovery after a stroke. This doesn’t mean that The Replacements have reformed. What is certain is that the bonds between friends are far more important than career paths and label expectations. In that sense, The Replacements’ final chapter is yet to be written.