Graded on a Curve:
The Replacements,
Let It Be

Minneapolis indie rock heroes The Replacements went from snot-nosed “let’s get drunk and puke on the ceiling then fall down on stage” punks to power pop legends on the strength of the deceptively effortless songcraft of Paul Westerberg, and Westerberg reached his peak on 1984’s audaciously titled Let It Be. Taking on the Beatles takes cojones, especially from a guy who once sang, “I hate music/It’s got too many notes.”

Let It Be hardly marked the end of their “too shitfaced to play” ethos, but it was, as Westerberg would note, “the first time I had songs that we arranged, rather than just banging out riffs and giving them titles.” “I Will Dare” is a bona fide slice of pop genius; “Unsatisfied” is “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” with more heart and more soul than the jaded Mick Jagger could summon up if you tossed him into a pile of cocaine and supermodels and let him stew until unhappy. But Westerberg hadn’t lost touch with his inner punk; songs like “Gary’s Got a Boner” and “We’re Comin’ Out” would have been right at home on 1982’s puke punk classic Stink.

Let It Be is the sound of a punk growing up just to learn that growing up isn’t all that much fun. But grow up you must, as John Mellencamp could have told Paul Westerberg if he’d been willing to listen. “Everything drags and drags,” sings Westerberg on the doleful coming of age tune “Sixteen Blue”; “It’s a boring state/A boring wait, I know.” You try to call your girl and all you get is her answering machine and what does that mean? It can’t be good. And what can you really expect from the future? “Everything you dream of/Is right in front of you,” sings Westerberg, “And everything is a lie.”

But if coming of age is confusing, the ‘Mats aren’t about to let it keep them from kicking out the jams. They plow through “Favorite Thing” with a vengeance; if “rock’n’roll don’t give a shit” Westerberg doesn’t either. And they up the tempo even further on the hardcore toon “We’re Comin’ Out,” on which Bob Stinson plays chaotic guitar and Westerberg welcomes yet another opportunity “to get it all wrong.” “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” is yet another hardcore number that signifies nothing but tastes good, like ice cream after a tonsillectomy. “Gary’s Got a Boner” comes on like a Ted Nugent song and features both some really rough vocals and more deranged Stinson guitar spew.

And how bad can growing up be if you’ve got Kiss and “Black Diamond”? The boys throw everything they’ve got into it and they don’t even come across as punks taking the piss while doing it. Meanwhile, “Seen Your Video” is a tuneful rant against MTV and everything MTV stands for, and it’s not just posturing because the ‘Mats never took the easier, softer way by producing little movies to produce product. I love the crazy piano and the way an irate Westerberg repeats, “Seen your video/It’s only rock’n’roll/We don’t wanna know!” As for “Androgynous” it’s “Walk on the Wild Side” with a prettier melody and a bigger heart; Westerberg’s salute to his proud LGBT sisters and brothers is tender and loving and totally lacking in the kind of knee-jerk homophobia brought to the subject by so many other punk bands, Fear (Boo!) for example.

“Unsatisfied” is the greatest song on the album and one of the greatest rock songs ever written both because it’s lovely beyond measure and because on it Westerberg bares his soul; his heart is breaking and you can hear it right there in his cracking, aching vocals. Life doesn’t deliver and adulthood is one long disappointment and all Westerberg can do is issue this desperate, inchoate cry. On “Unsatisfied” Westerberg gives voice to the quiet desperation we all feel, and I can think of very few songs as haunting.

The Replacements didn’t have a happy ending; Bob Stinson would sink into hopeless alcoholism, be kicked out of the band, and die a lonely death in 1995, by which time the band was ancient history. I’ve always considered Let It Be to be the high-water mark of the Replacements’ recording career; their later LPs received many well-deserved accolades, but they sound overly polite to me. On Let It Be The Replacements barely managed to harness their anarchic tendencies to well-crafted melodies and the results were magical. Then Stinson split, Westerberg slowly lowered the flag of anarchy, and things were never the same. Growing up is a bitch.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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