Home Read Classic Album Review: Paul Westerberg | Stereo / Mono

Classic Album Review: Paul Westerberg | Stereo / Mono

The Replacements leader's dual albums reflect both sides of his musical personality.

This came out in 2002 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):


You can hardly blame Paul Westerberg for being bummed.

After all, he hasn’t exactly had the greatest of luck career-wise. Back in the ’80s, he practically invented grunge and alt-rock as the leader of hard-drinking punks The Replacements. But did it make him a household name? No; he just got to sit and watch as his band dissolved in acrimony while imposters like The Goo Goo Dolls hijacked their sound and rode it to the top of the charts. Things haven’t improved much since then. Over the past decade, Westerberg has put out three superb, endlessly acclaimed solo albums full of gritty garage-rock and wry confessional balladry — each of which has sunk with nary a commercial ripple. Even 1998’s Suicaine Gratifaction, recorded with hitmaker producer Don Was, couldn’t attract the wider audience his material deserves.

After being kicked that many times, even a dog would give up. And that’s what Westerberg has done on Stereo / Mono, his new double album. Given up. Not on music, mind you; some of these songs are the finest work he’s done in years. No, what Westerberg has done is stopped trying to please anybody but himself. Big-name producers? Expensive studios? Session musicians? Forget it, pal. These two CDs are (or at least sound like they were) recorded in Westerberg’s basement, on the fly, whenever the mood struck him and with whatever and whoever was handy. (Hell, the cover picture alone looks like he took it himself with a disposable camera in the middle of the night.)

Basically, Stereo and Mono reflect both sides of Westerberg’s musical personality. Ironically, Stereo is the darker, more subdued and introspective half. Most of its dozen tracks are downbeat country waltzes, built around Westerberg’s lazy strumming and world-weary vocals, backed by bare-bones instrumentation. Drums don’t appear at all until nearly halfway through the disc and only a few songs — like the slow-burning No Place For You and the kiddie-rocker Mr. Rabbit — could be termed “rockers.” And with titles like Got You Down, Nothing to No One, Don’t Want Never, Call That Gone? and Let the Bad Times Roll, you don’t need Dr. Freud to tell you this disc is dominated by depression, desperation, divorce and drugs. But just because Paul is down doesn’t mean he’s out. These tracks have a musical power to match their emotional impact. Westerberg’s usual ramshackle beauty is evident in every melody, while the lyrics are brimming with twisted, misanthropic couplets like, “Baby learns to crawl by watching Daddy’s skin,” and “The only lie worth telling is, ‘I’m in love with you.’ ” Apparently Paul hasn’t had the greatest luck on the home front, either.

Luckily, the set’s other CD Mono rescues the mood. Originally released in the U.S. a couple of months ago under Westerberg’s musical alter-ego Grandpa Boy, its 11 tracks are a joyous set of loose-limbed guitar-rock. Tracks like I’ll Do Anything, Eyes Like Sparks and Knock it Right Out shuck and jive to choppy riffs and swaggering Stones-rock rhythms. Others like High Time, Silent Film Star, Kickin’ the Stall and AAA lightly swing to the strummy grooves and ringing chords that defined the rockier moments of his previous discs. Taken together, they’re the closest Westerberg has come yet to recreating the tipsy abandon of The Replacements. Probably, they’re as close as he’ll ever get.

Some might say that’s another good reason why he should be bummed. Maybe they’re right. All we know is that the worse Paul Westerberg feels, the better he sounds.