Solitary Man 

Talking about going solo

Talking about going solo

Henry James was talking, presciently, about punk rock stars who go solo when he said, “The best things come, as a general thing, from the talents that are members of a group; every man works better when he has companions working in the same line, and yielding the stimulus of suggestion, comparison, emulation.”

On his new album, Eventually, ex-Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg doesn’t sound like he’s being stimulated by anyone—creative isolation shows through. In extricating himself from the boozy, self-mocking group identity of his former band, he’s thrown the baby out with the bathos. As one of the Replacements, he made music that knew the way to your heart. This album feels like it exists in a social vacuum.

Somebody (most likely not Henry James) once said that John Lennon was the only rock ’n’ roll star who could sing “we” convincingly. Well, Westerberg once could too—better yet, he could sing “I” and make it sound like “we.” I was a member of the ragged generation who found in the Replacements’ songs a reflection of our own fears and embarrassingly sincere desires. When he sang “Hold my life/Until I’m ready to use it/Hold my life/’Cause I just might lose it,” we knew what he meant. He could turn the most naked emotions into lines few punks would have the guts to sing, or he could toss them off as jokes you could see right through. You didn’t necessarily think the Replacements were your friends, the way another music fan might think Holly Near was, but you felt they would understand you, and if they laughed at you they’d also be laughing at themselves.

It was, in fact, easy to laugh at them—when they got drunk onstage, when they called themselves “Treatment Bound,” when they attempted to cover “I’ll Be There” and fell all over themselves. And fans eventually knew that behind this tomfoolery were serious troubles that led to the firing (and ultimately the death) of guitarist Bob Stinson and to a growing feeling of pointlessness. After two mediocre records and entropy finished off the band, Westerberg released a solo debut, 14 Songs, that declared he was a musician—an artist! a poet!—not a clown. Unfortunately, it wasn’t great. It was a manifesto without a cause; it had little heart.

Eventually suffers from a similar inadequacy. The package hints at one problem right off. On the cover is a big picture of Paul Westerberg pretending to wear a violin as a tie. On the back cover is a big picture of Paul Westerberg sitting Indian-style with a guitar. In the insert is...a big picture of Paul Westerberg. Opposite that is a credit line: “Art direction: Paul Westerberg.”

Self-indulgence doesn’t make Eventually unprofessional, of course; it’s not a badly made record. Some of the songs are catchy, with sweet choruses and great guitar textures. (It figures that Westerberg is the only guitarist on the record.) “Century” doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, but it’s a quite pretty rocker, with moments of swooping beauty. “You’ve Had It With You” has a grungy four-note riff you’d like to carry around in your pocket. But the album never really talks to you. It never becomes more than singer-songwriter product. It’s tame, even—the drummers in particular sound like they’re trying not to draw attention away from the man wearing the violin.

“Love Untold” is about a boy and girl whose love never gets expressed—“They were gonna meet/On a crummy little street/It never came to be/I’m told.” The song is in the spirit of earlier affectionate portraits like “Sixteen Blue” and “Androgynous,” but it’s halfhearted and half-assed. Whereas Westerberg once seemed to be writing about real people, these folks sound fabricated—ciphers without particularity. “I’m told” distances the singer from them even further.

Most of the songs aren’t really about much except Westerberg’s cleverness. And little feeling emerges between the lines, the way it used to in Bob Stinson’s guitar or Chris Mars’ drums. (The drumming alone on “Valentine” can make you cry through sheer steadfastness.) The album feels solipsistic—not because Westerberg talks about himself much, but because he seems to be imagining an outside world merely for material. Westerberg in his salad days could get a crowd of boys at a show to chant along with those wry, sad lines from the ’Mats’ “Nightclub Jitters,” “Don’t matter much/If we keep in touch.” It’s hard to imagine anyone singing along with this record. Westerberg has perhaps spent too much time listening to fans tell him he’s a genius, but otherwise he seems progressively distant from his audience. Doesn’t matter much if he keeps in touch, apparently.

Is it fair to blame this on the lack of a real band? Hard to say, but I’d like to see Westerberg put one together that would kick his ass. The Replacements used to do that. He had to earn every “Sixteen Blue,” because the other ’Mats, legendary for their preference for hard-rocking fun, would have smashed anything shoddier to bits. Even the solo tracks he snuck onto the band’s records from time to time at least had to stand up to their sneers. The other Replacements served as alter ego—the heavy metal attitude that didn’t always conceal the vulnerable soul. Without them, Westerberg has no foil. He’s shadow-boxing. A new band might force him to write songs that mean more to someone other than himself. The Replacements are gone, but the boy-gang dynamics that drove them aren’t the only possibility in collaboration—a new group can find its own dynamics. The point is to make Westerberg work at connecting. The point is to give him a “we.”

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