Paul Westerberg :: 14 Songs (Revisited)

I’ve never been a huge fan of 14 Songs, which is probably an odd statement coming from a massive fan of both the Replacements and much of Paul Westerberg’s solo work. But when I was first getting into Westerberg in high school, I was always more fond of Eventually and Suicaine Gratifaction. Also, I think it’s important to note that I wasn’t overly fond of the ‘Mats’ All Shook Down during the same period. Not only were both albums produced by the same person, but since both records were Paul’s first steps away from the Replacements as a band, they have a similar sound and feel to the songwriting.

Recently though, while listening to the Besterberg best-of collection, I was reminded of how much I enjoyed some of the tracks culled from 14 Songs. I decided it might be time to revisit the album as a whole to see if my thoughts had changed over the years as it had been some time since I’d listened to it in its entirety.

It’s obvious that Westerberg had been taking steps toward a more ‘mature’ sound in his songwriting for some time. While the ‘Mats’ albums were notorious for their throw-away songs that threw the brilliant songwriting into sharper relief, those songs had fit less and less cohesively into the later albums of the band’s career. Unfortunately this pursuit of a grown-up sound also seemed to mean continued work with Matt Wallace, the man who had produced the Replacements’ Don’t Tell a Soul and All Shook Down, the former of which is not exactly beloved, production-wise, in the band’s catalogue.

So what did I think after revisiting the record? It’s better than I remembered, but still a deeply flawed album. Here I’ll make the obvious joke that 14 Songs would have been better as merely 12, but nothing from the first six tracks of the album is touchable. “Knockin’ on Mine” is the epitome of Westerberg at his self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek, rockin’ best, a perfect opening track that regains some of those qualities that had seemed to disappear in All Shook Down. “Runaway Wind” and “Even Here We Are” are beautiful ballads, the last of which captures the magic that happens when you set a microphone in front of just Westerberg and a guitar with little to no extra instrumentation involved. The jaunty “Dice Behind Your Shades” pairs Westerberg’s wit with his female character study tendency and, yet again, begets a beautiful song. (Though I honestly prefer the “festicle version” which was a b-side for “Knockin’ on Mine” — well worth tracking down.)

But then comes the first song I’d cut – “Silver Naked Ladies.” It’s a classic sounding rocker with trite lyrics and little to recommend. A forgettable b-side at best, its placement after the beautiful “Even Here We Are” and before the superior “A Few Minutes of Silence” throws a huge monkeywrench into the album’s flow. The second half of the LP suffers as a result, despite having two of Westerberg’s finest solo songs ever, “Black Eyed Susan” and “Things.” “Black Eyed Susan” sounds sonically like an updated take on the Replacements’ “Within Your Reach.” “Things” is, lyrically, one of Westerberg’s finest hours, a sweetly sad song about the demise of a relationship that threads itself through various meanings of the title word. They’re the only two softer songs in the second half and easily the best of the bunch. The rockers are serviceable – the aforementioned “A Few Minutes of Silence,” the intricate “Mannequin Shop” and the closing rave-up “Down Love” are strong – but “Something is Me” (the other song I’d cut) suffers from poor lyrics, not a critique I’m used to leveling at Westerberg compositions. Even his worst songs usually have small couplets or clever wordplay that redeem them in some fashion, but not so here.

14 Songs is better than I remember and, honestly, its weak spots are probably the result of a great talent truly untethered for the first time from the internal quality control of a band mechanism. He didn’t seem to fix that problem until Suicaine Gratifaction (for all its great songs, Eventually is full of more clunkers than 14 Songs), but it’s easy enough to forgive some of the rough patches here. I understand why so many people have defended this album as the best of his early career as it’s the closest to the Replacements’ sound that he would come for some time. But it serves more as a document of the beginning steps and mis-steps of an artist coming into his own independent voice for the first time. words/ j neas

Related: Paul Westerberg :: Suicaine Gratification

MP3: Paul Westerberg :: Knockin’ on Mine
MP3: Paul Westerberg :: Things

18 thoughts on “Paul Westerberg :: 14 Songs (Revisited)

  1. What?! silver naked ladies is an awesome song, somewhat stupid but a fun stupid song.

  2. good post. I’m in the camp that thinks it’s his second strongest collection of songs aside from Tim. Pleased to Meet Me may have more highs, but also three clunkers, all on Side 1. And I just about never pull Eventually off the shelf even though I saw him on that tour. Just sounds really ‘of that time’ for me.
    14 Songs- you were bang on about the 2 worst songs – Someone Is Me, Silver. I could take or leave Mannequin Shop even though it’s humourus but if you just listened to the 11 left it’s a strong collection. Even a trifle like Someone I Once Knew has enough charms to recommend and perhaps no song in the PW canon has been a grower for me like Dice. Subtly brilliant. Most of the rest don’t need me prattling on about their strengths.

  3. I was 19 when this came out and working at a toy store to cover the cost of textbooks and 40’s. I knew this album was coming out but I wasn’t sure when. I was browsing through the record store before heading to my toy shift when I found this. I bought it, stepped outside and called my job from a pay phone to say I was sick and wouldn’t be coming in. I took the bus home and plugged in. It was the right choice then, it’s probably still the right choice. Flawed or not, I love this record.

  4. I’m not a huge fan of 14 Songs. Maybe it’s because it’s too close to his (later) Replacements output, but those songs, especially, “Knockin’ On Mine” play really, really well live. Moot point, as he seems to be retired from touring.

  5. @Dray – I have to ask – what songs are clunkers on side 1 of PTMM? That’s my favorite ‘Mats record. To me, all the clunkers are on side two and really only “Shootin’ Dirty Pool” is the truly bad one. I have a big soft spot for “Red Red Wine.”

    I thought about asking this in the post originally, but what’s everyone’s favorite/least favorite Mats/Westerberg album throw-away songs? Might be interesting just to see what people think are “throw-away” songs, too.

    Off the top of my head, favorite: “Take Me Down to the Hospital”/”Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and worst: “Trumpet Clip” from Westerberg’s Eventually.

  6. 14 Songs was my entry into the world of Westerberg and the Mats, so it means something to me. The witty and funny wordplay was great and “Things” is just a great great song.

  7. nice review and trip down memory lane. hard to believe its been 18 years since 14 was released. agree with silver naked ladies, that said it WAS in Tommy Boy which does offer some salvation to the tune. says me.

  8. Agreed– I’m a big supporter of “Take Me Down to the Hospital” and a non-fan of “Shooting Dirty Pool”. “Hayday” kinda down, “You Lose” more up. “I Don’t Know” wears pretty thin for me after one verse-chorus while “Lay It Down Clown” works for me, maybe on account of the sloppy slide and pianner.

  9. Always nice to see Paul Westerberg and the Replacements getting some love, but please check your facts more closely. All Shook Down was produced by Scott Litt, not Matt Wallace. Production values seem to be a pretty major point in your article, and this point is inaccurate.

  10. Agreed on the sonic similarities of “All Shook Down” and “14 Songs,” but I’ve always felt the latter lacks the emotional and thematic focus of the former (I’m a big fan of “All Shook Down”). I’d scratch “First Glimmer” & “Silver Naked Ladies” from “14 Songs,” maybe a couple others. The strained prettiness of “Runaway Wind” in particular has never sat well with me.

    My favorite of Westerberg’s first-wave solo records is “Eventually.” Here’s hoping you complete the trilogy and give that one some words sometime soon.

  11. Great post. Then again, any Mats-Westerberg post is a great post.

    Just wanna say, can we get a little love for All Shook Down once in awhile?

    Also, best collection of songs aside from Tim? Really? PTMM and Mono would certainly qualify for that distinction.


  12. I’m actually on the opposite side of the fence from Wade K, where “First Glimmer” is my #1 favorite post-Mats Westerberg track. 14 Songs is definitely a record with flaws, but it’s also, in my opinion, the best that Paul ever got in regards to writing pure pop songs.

  13. I always kinda thought “14 Songs” sounded like it belonged between, say, “Let it Be”and “Tim”.

    I have also often like to introduce the notion that “14 Songs” is actually the best Replacements record ever released.

    As much as I love that band I don’t feel like they ever released a singularly great single LP. Sometimes I introduce these notions just to start an argument. Other times I believe them.

    I also feel like PW’s solo work gets a bad rap overall. And while I don’t listen to “Eventually” or “Suicane” a whole lot every once in a while an “Angels Walk” will pop up on shuffle and I’ll say HEY!

  14. I have never understood why “All Shook Down” gets no love. The songwriting is excellent even if it’s very restrained sounding compared to the classic lineup’s records.

  15. @Jimmy – All Shook Down took years to grow on me. As a teenager, I probably was turned off by the subdued sound of most of the album, even on the rockers. But I’ll tell you the exact thing that lead to a turnaround on my part – hearing the bootleg of the ‘Mats’ final show in Grant Park, Chicago on July 4th, 1991. Even though this was just a shell of the original band (Paul, Tommy, Slim and Steve Foley, now drumming for Chris Mars who had left after the recording of ASD), they were an awesome live show with a ton of energy and really brought some of the more lifeless ASD songs into full bloom. I almost immediately gave ASD a second listen and found myself far more into it than I’d thought.

  16. Difference of opinion, but just when I was thinking to myself what a distance exists between “Sorry Ma” and the first six songs, out bursts “Silver Naked Ladies.” I think it throws the whole thing a kilter…on time. It’s only rock’n’roll.

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