The Over/Under: Paul Westerberg

PaulWesterberg

Apart from a joint interview with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong in Spin and commenting on the loss of his hero, Alex Chilton, in The New York Times, deservedly legendary singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg has been keeping a pretty low profile. So, what better time to subject his post-Replacements catalog to everyone’s “favorite” MAGNET feature? Now remember, this is just one guy’s opinion, a guy who loves the Replacements and Westerberg as much as anyone. (Well, maybe not as much as a few Westernerds; you know who you are.) While my fondness for Westerberg’s post-Replacements output has faded somewhat, he’s still my default answer when anyone asks whom I consider my favorite songwriter of all-time. Commenters were generally kind when I did the Replacements Over/Under, especially compared to the poor saps who dared to critique Guided By Voices and Ween. Be that as it may, here’s another reminder: The songs on the overrated list aren’t necessarily genuinely overrated by fans or by the general public, nor are they necessarily bad. And the underrated ones aren’t always obscure. The entire thing is just an editorial exercise on a webpage; feel free to chime in with your picks or chide me in the comments. Read a lot more about the Replacements, Hüsker Dü and the ’80s Minneapolis scene in our extensive 2005 cover story. Also read our 2002 cover story on Westerberg and novelist George Pelecanos’ ode to the Replacements.

The Five Most Overrated Paul Westerberg Songs
1. “Dyslexic Heart” (1992)
Along with the superior “Waiting For Somebody,” “Dyslexic Heart” appeared on the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s Singles. As an overeager fanboy still crying over the Replacements’ demise and jonesing for Westerberg product, I sported a shit-eating grin upon hearing both songs while watching the movie. The smile’s not quite as big when considering this tune now. It’s a nice, little pop song, one of Westerberg’s catchiest, but once the initial rush was over, my lack of interest in it soon followed.

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2. “Love Untold” (1996)
I defended “Love Untold” (from Eventually) after my friend Cal said it was a retread of “First Glimmer” from 14 Songs, Westerberg’s 1993 solo debut LP. While it’s really not a retread, lyrically this tale of missed romantic opportunity borders on trite: “Their hands were gonna sweat/It was all set/She ain’t showed up yet/Still a good chance.” And then there’s the part about wearing clean underwear. I love the music, love the tension, but I always expect Westerberg to come up with better lyrics than that. It’s my hangup, I know.

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3. “Actor In The Street” (1999)
I’ve never understood what Westerberg is going on about on this tune: “I shot an actor in the street/It was my debut at directing/We nailed him in the hands and feet/Last seen, he was in his trailer resting.” (Some sort of persecuted-thespian-as-Jesus reference, perhaps?) More importantly, I stopped caring pretty quickly about this meandering mess that closed the disappointing Suicaine Gratifaction. So how is ”Actor In The Street” overrated? Because I don’t recall more people disliking it as much as I do. Am I wrong?

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4. “Folk Star” (2004)
Westerberg repeatedly wailing “I’m a folk star” while closing out this middling Folker dud is surely someone’s cup of tea, just not mine. “Folk Star” strikes me as the least-inspired tune on a pretty uninspired record (though many disagree), one that made Suicaine sound comparatively better.

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5. “Love You In The Fall” (2006)
There are some pretty good songs on Open Season, Westerberg’s soundtrack to the animated film, with “Love You In The Fall” probably being the best. But since I refuse to put full LPs on an Over/Under list, “Love You In The Fall” will have to take the fall for a discussion I had about the record with MAGNET editor/publisher Eric T. Miller. Not only did Miller claim that Open Season was a better record than Portastatic’s far-superior Be Still Please, which he left off his year-end best-of list in favor of Open Season, he believed it to be better than the Replacements’ Stink. While no one’s opinion on a record is “wrong” (though Miller tells me the opposite on a regular basis), the notion bugged me to the point where I was compelled to asked some Westerberg/Replacements-loving friends for their thoughts. I can’t sum it up better than LC (“Anyone who’d argue for Open Season over any Replacements album, including the late-era, basically solo-Westerberg albums, is crazy”) and Joe (“One record represents the beginning of something, and the other is pretty clearly near the end of something”).

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The Five Most Underrated Paul Westerberg Songs
1. “World Class Fad” (1993)
Not only is “World Class Fad” the most Replacements-y rocker (in quality and in spirit) on 14 Songs, its video, shown on MTV at least twice, is pretty cool. Rumored to be about Kurt Cobain—though Westerberg denied it in MAGNET’s aforementioned cover story—its withering snark, directed at whichever soon-to-be-forgotten, young-rocker target (“You want it that bad, be a world-class fad/Remember, leave a trail of crumbs”), hits its mark. It’s a cliché, but “World Class Fad,” video and all, should’ve been the hit Westerberg’s never had.

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2. “Once Around The Weekend” (1996)
In a career full of sad songs, this one from Eventually might be the saddest. Given Westerberg’s reclusive nature, it’s difficult not to think “Once Around The Weekend” is pure autobiography: “I watch myself fall apart/I watch rabbits in my yard/There goes another ‘round the bend/I’ve gotta sweep this floor again.” The song’s spare loneliness is simply heartbreaking and simply genius. (Pointless aside: I never liked the sped-up version played on tour in ’96; it robbed the song of much of its poignancy.)

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3. “Lush And Green” (1997)
Among diehards, this gorgeous acoustic ballad from the self-titled, five-track Grandpaboy EP is hardly underrated. It’s here simply in the hopes that at least one of the 12 people who reads this and has never heard the song will take the time to do so.

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4. “These Days” (2003)
A Jackson Browne tune also covered by the likes of Gregg Allman and Mates Of State, Westerberg’s world-weary version on Come Feel Me Tremble kills me every time. (Another pointless aside: How amazing is it that Browne wrote this when he was 16? I played Strat-O-Matic Baseball and worked on the school newspaper when I was that age. Advantage, Browne.) The measure of a cover version, be it faithful or completely reworked, is how well the performer makes it his/her/their own. While it’s clear the lyrics aren’t Westy’s (the teenage Browne could never be as clever), when he sings lines like “Please don’t confront me with my failures/I had not forgotten them,” “These Days” officially becomes Westerbergian.

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5. “As Far As I Know” (2004)
While Folker is kind of a folking bore, “As Far As I Know” most certainly is not. It’s a jangly, catchy gem with typically great Westy wordplay: “I’m in love with a dream I had as a kid/I wait up the street until you show/That dream it came true, but you never do/No, you never did/As far as I know.” “As Far As I Know” has all of Westerberg’s best songwriting qualities neatly wrapped up in a three-minute package. If he penned more nuggets like this, far fewer people would question whether he’s still able to.

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—Matt Hickey

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23 Comments

  1. Posted June 15, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    As Far As I Know / Only Lie Worth Telling = awesome

  2. Mike S.
    Posted June 15, 2010 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    don’t know why you seethe so regarding Folker. Maybe listen to the Replacements again, this is obviously his make-up album with that band’s legacy. I thought the repetition of the lyrics of “Folk Star” was kinda the point of the song. Oh well, different strokes.

  3. Dooger
    Posted June 15, 2010 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    i found it strange to revisit some of these songs again after letting them fall into the dustbins of time. as an ex-confirmed replacements nut, i’m one of those folks who fell off the radar once paul ‘matured’ and wanted to grow as a singer/songwriter. truthfully, most of these songs scream “i’m old” and i’m not sure if it’s really the fault of the critics and fans who perpetually yelled “you’re a genius, paul!” and paul fell into that age-old trap of believing his own press (ala brian wilson and his long sandbox/i’m a genius phase), it was his new-found sobriety (which will zap anyone’s loaded punk spirit), or he just peaked creatively throughout the 80′s, providing us all with some of the best music of that era… and sadly, the magic’s finally gone. or perhaps it’s just me who lost the spirit and stopped caring so much. anyhow, i know this sounds harsh but i’m actually a tad saddened listening to all of these tracks again – no matter how ‘well crafted’ they are. i’d still prefer to go back and listen to ‘bastards of young’, ‘here comes a regular’ and ‘valentine’, their youthful loaded spirit washing over me like the great songs i always knew they were.

  4. Iska Waran from Mpls
    Posted June 15, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    OK, It’s not overrated or underrated, but I just have to throw this out: Put on Left of the Dial. Turn it up LOUD. Music gets no better.

  5. Bob O'Blonkey
    Posted June 15, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    What Dooger said.

    I’d even take that one step further; it was all over when they hit Sire/WB.

  6. WhiskeyT
    Posted June 15, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    As far as albums go i’ll give you “Open Season” maybe being overrated (as much as anything he has done can be) but I think that the Grandpaboy Dead Man Shake record was criminally underrated. Almost any track from that album would have been appropriate but i’d suggest “Vampires and Failures”

  7. Posted June 15, 2010 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Good tune, that Lush and Green.

  8. Posted June 15, 2010 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    I’d have to say that almost ALL of Paul’s songs are underrated. Yes, to many people he is their “default” favorite songwriter (mine as well). But, I don’t understand why people want him to still be the Paul Westerberg that wrote the Replacements’ songs. That would be going backwards. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with someone writing songs for the age they are. This is what I like about him (and the Descendents for that matter).

    By the way, for amazing songs “Born for Me” and “First Glimmer” can’t be beat.

  9. David
    Posted June 15, 2010 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Matt – I admire this dedication, though I’m sad to see that nothing off Westerburg’s greatest solo album, and one of the best albums of the 00′s, “Stereo”, did not make your underrated list. Is this because most Paul fans actually rate this basement masterpiece as highly as is deserving?

  10. Brendan H.
    Posted June 15, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    As someone else who always cites Paul Westerberg as his favorite songwriter, thanks for this post. They’re good picks, especially Actor in the Street. I’ll defend the rest of Suicaine as an underrated album (It’s A Wonferful Lie and Born for Me are possibly my two favorite solo songs from him), but damn if Actor in the Street doesn’t ruin almost the whole album.

    Also, Open Season is not better than Stink. Or anything else by Westerberg, solo or with the ‘mats. Aside from Love You in the Fall, it’s a pretty blah affair.

    On the underrated side, I’d argue not just Lush & Green but anything by his Grandpaboy persona. Vampires & Failures, AAA, Let’s Not Belong… it’s just a fun period of listening to Paul have a good time.

  11. Brendan H.
    Posted June 15, 2010 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and what about 49:00? Where would you rank that, and would you consider one song?

    For me, that one’s right up there with the Grandpaboy stuff.

  12. halucy
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    Does this mean I’m the 12th person that read this?

  13. magnet21
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    David:

    You answered your own question, re: Stereo/Mono. While I feel those records are overrated as a whole (ducking), I didn’t feel any one song was underrated due to how most fans think of it, nor did I feel any particular song was overrated.

    Brendan:

    No mention of 49:00 because I haven’t heard it. I’m sure I will someday, but based on some things I heard from fellow Westernerds about it, it didn’t seem like a vital listen.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    MH

  14. Mike C
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    While I will agree that some of Paul’s work in the 90′s has been subpar (for his standards) though they are some gems to be found, I feel his work since 2000 has been nothing short of incredible, some of which rivals his best work with the Mats. First, I think Stereo/Mono is his Blood on the Tracks. Both sides of Paul are shown nicely and there are so many great tunes for all fans on this album: “Silent Film Star”, “Call That Gone”, “AAA”, “Let The Bad Times Roll”. Then you have Come Feel Me Tremble which should make those yearning for the past happy as its more of what was on Mono with Paul playing loud and dirty chords while still shinning as a songwriter. I love “Crackle and Drag” and “What A Day (For A Night)”. Now if Come Feel Me Tremble was a step backwards Folker is indeed more towards the older more mature Paul. However, how can you ignore songs like “My Dad” and “Looking Up in Heaven”? Perhaps you’ve been fortunate enough not to see love ones in pain and pass on, but at least for me these songs are special for that reason. And I agree “As Far As I Know” is just a great power pop song. I’m not sure who told you “49:00″ was not an essential listen because I find it to be a masterpiece. Not only did he release for 49 cents as a slap in the face to the music industry, it shows us everything we love (and hate) about Paul. Tiny snippets of songs, songs bleeding over one another, all one long track. It’s like your driving around in the car with Paul and he is flipping through radio stations. The songwriting is strong, the first three songs especially are worth the price of the album and there is a good mix of rockers and acoustic. Even is most recent EP is solid. “Love On The Wing” is right up there with the best songs he has ever written and there isn’t a dud on the EP, imho.

    So I know you said it was all just opinion so I thought I would offer mine. I mean what artist/songwriters has been as creative and producing as good of work later in their careers as Paul has? Certainly not his fellow Twin-City musician Bob Mould, saw him at the Birchmere in DC a few years ago. Was unimpressive to say the least and took himself a little too seriously I thought. Dylan? McCartney? Springsteen? I would be interested to hear what others think in that regard.

    On a completely unrelated not I just got back from the Rock N Roll HoF and while the Mats aren’t in there (yet). I was walking around looking at handwritten lyrics to different songs artists had donated and my heart nearly stops when I see the lyrics to “Here Comes A Regular” that Paul had donated. There was at least two extra verses and some of the first verse was changed. It was very surreal to be able to see that, so if any of you Westernerds are at the Rock Hall check it out.

  15. Todd
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    By calling Westerberg your favorite songwriter and then not bothering to even check out 49:00, you’ve pretty much proven what the real underrated record is. It’s also pretty irresponsible journalism to do a survey of a artist’s career and not listen to all the work.

  16. MH
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Todd:

    Next time we do an Over/Under, we’ll put a “of the stuff of his/hers/theirs we’ve heard” disclaimer. Does that work?

    As I explained in the intro, my interest in Westerberg has waned. I had very little interest in checking out 49:00 because of that fact. If that makes me irresponsible, I can live with that.

    MH

  17. Dooger
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    I know this is a little off-topic but I felt compelled to write again after reading Mike C’s thoughtful comments about Paul’s post-Mats work. He obviously knows his stuff and I must admit that I certainly didn’t remain on board for most of Paul’s music after he left the Replacements so I’m no the best judge of these tunes. Upon reflection, I DID hear the Mono/Stereo CD and I agree that it had some excellent songs on it.. Actually, if you ever get a chance to hear the bootlegs from this session, however distorted these songs are, it’s worth a listen as it’s also an excellent collection of raw tunes (and which I know Paul would hate as he’s not a fan of bootlegs!).

    Mike also asked which artist/songwriters have been as creative and producing as good of work later in their careers.. I’d put forward Neil Young (however spotty) and surprisingly, the Canadian punk band Teenage Head hit one out of the proverbial ballpark with their album, ‘Head Disorder’ a few years ago too, quickly and off the top of my head, although I agree that this certainly isn’t the norm.

    I suppose my problem with Paul’s post-Mats career – if I really try to really psychoanalyze it, is either I’VE changed as music in general doesn’t really hold the importance it once had in my life as a twenty-something (I’m 50 now.. yicks!) and/or Paul’s changed and his songwriting skills and performances don’t match his creative peak in the 80’s. Or perhaps it’s a combination of both of these problems with another potential problem that I’ve noticed where the chemistry’s off when a singer goes solo and they hire more ‘professional’ musicians to back them up. For me, he’s also missing the chemistry of playing with Bob, Tommy, and Chris. As an aside, I remember attending a number of early club gigs in Los Angeles of the pop-punk band, The Muffs. There was a magical chaotic chemistry that this band had when they started and you can hear it on their early 7”ers too. Once the drummer and rhythm guitarist were fired and a new, more proficient drummer was added to the mix, they became tighter, the sound went downhill, and the magic was surprisingly gone. Another example is when Mick Jagger hit the road solo for a brief period and he had studio musicians backing him up on the road, it’s as if all of the spirit was knocked out of all of the old Stones classics. Same thing happened when Alice Cooper got rid of his original band and released ‘Welcome to my Nightmare’.. The magic was gone even though these new musicians had better ‘skills’.

    Chemistry’s a funny animal and I also believe that perhaps that’s part of the problem with Paul’s post-Mats work as well. We can all hear it when the right people have come together to create music and the Replacements definitely had that combination. Or maybe I’ve just all gotten old and it doesn’t matter that much to me anymore. I can’t begrudge someone for wanted to continue their career and carry on but it doesn’t mean that I have to like this ‘evolution’, just because I was such a fanatic of their earlier work.

  18. Brendan H.
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    MH, what Westernerds dissuaded you from listening to 49:00? Is it that same one who loves Open Season? (Seriously, who loves that Open Season soundtrack?) 49:00 and the eps he’s released these past few years online are fantastic. It’s just Paul in the basement, playing what he feels like. As Mike C put it, it’s like you’re listening to Paul’s private radio station. It’s incredibly un-polished, but such a fun, rocking collection of great Westerberg lyrics and melodies. Give it a chance. (Then again, I don’t think Stereo/Mono can be rated highly enough, so maybe we enjoy different sides of Paul.)

    Dooger, I think you bring up a really good point about not liking an artist’s evolution. I love Paul’s, but there are a lot of artists where I love one album or one run of albums, yet not their subsequent work.

  19. Posted June 21, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    In my not-so-humble opinion 49:00, 5:05, Tremble and the Granpaboy stuff are far superior than anything he’s done for a proper label. You know why? Because Paul’s not good under pressure. He tries too hard to live up to his press and he gets producers who refuse to put their name on ‘underproduced’ work and it just takes all the fun out it.

    The reason the Mats were great is that they didn’t give a shit. As soon as they did, they got boring. Whenever Westerberg has to clock-in to the old songwriting job… he gets boring. When he’s in the basement fuckin’ around… That’s Rock and Roll. I love the way Bob Dylan has taken American dance hall and blues music recently and kind of formed this off-the-cuff but heartfelt catalog over the past 4 albums or so. And I think the basement stuff is in the same spirit and I’ll put any of them on just as quickly as I’ll put on the Dylan stuff… and I love the Dylan stuff.

    I mean, I’ll put Crackle and Drag right up there with Workin’ Man Blues #2 (my favorite Dylan song in years).

    The best music comes from the basement and the dance halls and the dirty urban bars. You want to hear The Band at their best… Basement Tapes. You want to hear Neil Young at his best… Harvest/Tonight’s the Night/Ragged Glory – all recorded in non-studio spaces with a sense of fun and a little nostalgia.

    Hell, even the best Tom Waits stuff was recorded in basements. “Exile” anyone? Just give me some snare-on-rim drums, a little crappy amp and some slap back reverb and you’re makin’ good rockin’ music. Ask Sam Phillips.

  20. Posted July 8, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    The above 3 songs say it all. If you don’t know these, you don’t know Paul

  21. LushThings
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    AAA / What a Day for a Night / Kickin’ the Stall

    If you don’t know these, you don’t know Paul

  22. Posted July 11, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    way late to the party, but, i would say one of the most underrated/unknown but great tunes by westy is “lookin out forever” on suicane gratification. love that one.

  23. Tom's Diner
    Posted January 25, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Even later to the party, but I second that one. “Lookin’ Out Forever” and “It’s A Wonderful Lie” absolutely kill me.

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