Decade :: Paul Westerberg, Stereo/Mono (2002)

decade aquarium drunkard

What is it that makes us want to deconstruct art by units of time? Lists. We love making them. We love arguing over them. And here, on the verge of a new decade, we’re in a position to do the same again. What were the best albums of the past ten years?

Here at AD, we started talking it through and decided we weren’t going to add to the cacophony of lists being put out by various music pubs. There are enough of those. Rather, we elected to let our four main writers have a chance to write about any and all of the albums they felt shaped the last decade.

From the beginning of October through the end of December, Monday through Thursday, AD will feature a post, or posts, from a particular writer detailing their favorite albums of the decade. On a given week there might be one album a writer talks about, there might be six, but they’ll get a chance to have their say on everything that comes to mind. Our hope for you, the reader, is that you’ll jump in with your comments on the album selections — tell us why you agree or disagree — and also be exposed to some albums that you may have missed over the last ten years. Now, as the decade starts to wind down, let’s celebrate.

41DTH7DAG4L._SL500_AA240_I was standing across the street from my college in February of 2002. I was about to see the Scaries play, a band that featured a bass player, Matt Tomich, who is also the operator of The Skyway, one of the internet’s oldest Replacements fan sites and newsletters. I went over to Matt to say something before the show and that’s when he hit me with something unexpected. “You know Westerberg has a new record out, right? Did it under that Grandpaboy name he did that EP as back in ’97. It came out this week with no push at all. He’s on Vagrant records.” Rumors had swirled that he might be calling it quits, finally done in by the ambivalence of an industry he had spurned one too many times over the years, so this was a shock. I immediately walked over to B.B.’s New and Used CDs (R.I.P.) and found one, sole copy sitting on the shelves. I grabbed it immediately.

What I had in my hands was Mono, a ramshackle collection that sounded more like the Replacements in spirit than anything Westerberg had recorded in the previous decade. The album was full of pseudonyms for the players, so rumors instantly swirled that Westerberg, Chris Mars and Tommy Stinson had recorded this album. Those rumors weren’t exactly denied by Westerberg, though as it would turn out, he was the sole architect, sloppy drumming and all, of the album. Dropped from Capitol, he had retreated to the basement of his house and put together an envigorating, genius affirming set of songs that was everything, energy wise, people had missed. “High Times,” “Silent Film Star” and “Eyes Like Sparks” all gleam with a snarky, smirking humor and a young, loud and snotty feel to the music. The record cruises by in 35 minutes was a refreshing shot of energy to a career that seemed stalled.

And then, two months later, came Stereo. The album was packaged with the Mono record as a two-CD set, but represented a fascinating and engaging mixture of Mono‘s lo-fi work ethic and Suicaine Gratifaction‘s lyrically introverted themes. The result was one of the most emotionally resonant records of Westerberg’s career, solo or band.

Westerberg grabbed long-time fans of his knack for wordplay on the album’s opening line. “Baby learns to crawl / watching daddy’s skin,” he sings in the nasal whine that has become so much more prominent in his later work. And it’s the mature discomfort of Westerberg’s lyrics that dominate the album. “Got You Down,” with its invocation of Harry Houdini and Rudolph Valentino, serves as a mirror image of Mono‘s “Silent Film Star.” “He don’t know nothin’, girl / but he’s got you down.” Later on, “Let The Bad Times Roll” echoes the ‘just add water’ lyrical theme (both stated and implied) of “Dirt into Mud” and “No Place for You.” It also delivers the album’s most crushing and affecting lyrical line: “Just add water / I’m disappointed / just like my father / I miss the point.” It’s a line with weight and humor and self-deprecation – the hallmarks of Westerberg’s best writing.

The album isn’t without its humor – the songs snapping off in places, as if running out of tape; the covers of the children’s classic, “Mr. Rabbit,” and Flesh for Lulu’s “Postcards from Paradise” – but the humor has a resigned feel, as if it were there because of obligation. It’s not that Stereo is a depressing album, but it feels lived in. It’s a double edged sword – the very setbacks and disappointments that drove him into the basement, yielded one of the best pieces of his career, but there’s only so much bread that can buy. The results are simultaneously freeing and reviving, in the case of Mono, and insular and discomforting in the case of Stereo. Together, they form some of the best work of Westerberg’s career and this decade. words/ j neas

MP3: Paul Westerberg :: Silent Film Star
MP3: Paul Westerberg :: Let The Bad Times Roll

10 thoughts on “Decade :: Paul Westerberg, Stereo/Mono (2002)

  1. Yesss! I’m so glad these albums were mentioned in your “Decade” series. It was the summer before my senior year of high school when I saw Paul on Conan performing “We May Be The Ones” I immediately went out and bought the record, having no idea that this guy used to front a somewhat legendary rock band.

    I soon fell in love with Stereo in particular and wore out that CD all summer long. I soon worked my way back to all The Replacements stuff too, but this was the first of Paul’s work that I connected with, or ever listened to.

    This probably puts me in a unique position; I’m sure most other people who listened to this record that summer did so with the baggage of their fandom. Well I can’t say for sure that if there were never were The Replacements, this record would still have had the power to simultaneously break the heart and lift the spirits of an overly sensitive 17 year old kid who loved music.

  2. @ Chris – I can certainly identify to some extent. While I definitely came to this album with the serious baggage of being a ‘Mats fan, I had actually really enjoyed Suicaine Gratifaction, and was disappointed when he disappeared into the ether for awhile. This record completely rejuvenated my enthusiasm for his work – he wore that down with the good-but-not-anywhere-near-as-great Folker, but then won me back again with 49:00 and the internet-only releases he’s had over the last year or two. I’m with you – a lot of fans I talked with back in 2002 went head over heels for Mono, but for me, it was always more about Stereo. It still gives me delightful tremors during listening.

  3. I only started listening to the Replacements in early 1999. Of course that music hit my soul like a million lightning bolts and provided the soundtrack to many personal loser-with-a-heart-of-gold moments. This infatuation led to the inevitable exploration of Westerberg’s solo catalog. But those wilderness years following the release of Suicaine Gratification proved to be the worst time to worship at the Westerberg altar. I remember talking with an Tower Records coworker about going on a road trip to Minneapolis to find the man himself, who was probably holed up in his basement. How true that image would be!

    When I moved to California in 2001, I hadn’t expected to ever hear from Westerberg again, except in the bootlegs and outtakes I would track down on occasion. So when word came to the second Tower Records I worked at that Westerberg had two new albums in the pipeline, my heart stood still and skipped a beat. And there would be an incredible flurry of Paulness in aftermath of that announcement. Albums! Concerts! Even that incredible in-store at Amoeba Hollywood (followed a few hours later by a Rocket From the Crypt show at Spaceland)! Talk about shifting from absence to abundance.

    I prefer Mono over Stereo and found Folker to also be lacking. (Perhaps that record was done in by too much hype by the man himself.) 49:00 was an unexpected return, but the album that gets me from start to finish is Come Feel Me Tremble. That record just has the best mix of Replacements (“Making Me Go,” “Wild & Lethal,” “Knockin’ Em Back”) and solo (“What a Day (for a Night),” “Meet Me Down the Alley”) sounds Westerberg has recorded to date. “Pine Box” even has one of the toughest riffs in his catalog. This smorsgasbord assembly hits hard on every play. And for that, I say this is Westerberg’s finest solo moment.

    Although I wouldn’t slag off the Open Season soundtrack. There are some gems to be found there, too.

  4. You are so right to cover this. I got into this album the summer going into my senior year of high school and it kind of changed everything – provided me with a soundtrack for which to stew in the futility of being seventeen. You don’t hear that rich, bodily guitar sound from Westerberg on any other album than Mono, and Stereo just feels like wisdom in quietude.

  5. Decade “series”? More like decade Web site.
    I guess I’ll have to go elsewhere to find out about relevant LA music news.
    Cuz it ain’t been on here for awhile.

  6. Complete agreement across the board on this one. I still play Mono at least weekly, if not monthly. It’s Pure Paul. I even find myself listening to it more than some of my treasured Mats albums. Good call on this one.

  7. Really, this Decade business is the best thing to come from a blog in ’09. The writing is superb, and the choices are fascinating and wonderful. Way to highlight a bunch of fantastic records that for the sad most part I had forgotten about.

    I love, too, how it’s not a list, so you’re not caught up on some arbitrary ranking. You guys actually sound like fans, like people who love music finally getting to gush about their favorites. It’s a joy to read, every time. Thanks.

  8. Come Feel Me Tremble was the highlight of Paul Westerberg’s decade for me, taking the best parts of albums like 14 Songs and Suicane but also with songs like ‘My Daydream’ that could easily slip into a mix alongside Mat’s cuts like ’16blue’, ‘Hold My Life’ or ‘Nevermind’ quite comfortably.

    Sometimes I don’t get the criticism surrounding PW’s solo career though. Seems some fans just don’t like an artist to move on or evolve from their respective heydays. Making comparisons to an artist’s golden era is always a recipe for a letdown so I don’t know why the Press imparticular seem so completely uncapable of judging an album on it’s own merits.

    PW made the template for Ryan Adams and legions of Americana acts with ‘Suicane’, stayed true to the spirit of the Replacements in records like ‘Stereo/Mono’ and also made a unique and underated debut album in ’14 Songs’ that sounds better now in hindsight without the clouds of expectation buzzing overhead.

    In my view PW has matched some of the great Replacements albums in his solo work, if not the very best. Even if you don’t believe so I reccomend taking a few tracks from each of his solo albums and giving them a fresh re-evaluation with an open mind. I did so recently and was surprised myself how many gems I found.

  9. real deal. didn’t even know it was him…grandpaboy + awesome cover = sold. then i was like, wow this is great and it’s westerberg…so great i purchased stereo afterwards. eyes like sparks…

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