Saturday, May 24, 2008
Nearly every review I have read of All Shook Down describes it as a slow, run-down, depressing affair. Y'see, this was the Replacements' last album after a decade of trying to attain mainstream acceptance and failing time and time again; naturally, they were all tired, pissed off at one another, and incapable of recapturing the fury of their early ragged-punk days. That bitterness ran rampant throughout the recording of All Shook Down, to the point that it pretty much became a Paul Westerberg solo album as the actual Replacements only appeared on a few tracks here-and-there, supplanted by studio musicians otherwise. And worse, it doesn't sound like classic Replacements at all - it's mellow, laid-back, and doesn't really rock at all. Looks like the great Replacements dream is over, folks.
And how could it not be?? Look at that album cover - what shaggy-lookin' dogs! And look at the song titles! Besides the title track, you've got "Bent Out Of Shape," "Sadly Beautiful," "Someone Take The Wheel," "Torture," and of course the last track on the album, "The Last." Not convinced yet, eh? How 'bout some lyrics? "Someone take the wheel / 'cuz I don't know where we're going." "Standing in the shadows / forever on the brink / turn it up so I don't have to think." "The plan was to sweep the world off its feet / So you sweep the garage for the neighbors to see." "Old habits are hard to break / and I don't know how much I can take."
Jeez. What a fucking downer.
...well, not quite. I have to admit that I don't hear this album as the major buzzkill a lot of people have labeled it. While the lyrics are hardly bubbling with optimism, the music is sweet, melodic, and well-crafted, showing off Westerberg's songwriting abilities in a much more conventional pop-rock setting. To be honest, I only hear three songs here that sound genuinely "out of it": the title track, which Paul practically mutters his way through; "Sadly Beautiful," a pretty ballad that nevertheless sounds completely heartbroken; and "Bent Out Of Shape," a totally forced hard-rocker that doesn't jive with the rest of the album (there's another rocker here, "My Little Problem," that's a whole lot more fun). But practically everything else here is guaranteed to please the pop lover buried within: "Merry-Go-Round," "One Wink At A Time," "Nobody," "When It Began," "Attitude," and "Happy Town" are all toe-tapping little ditties that I can't get enough of. Hell, even "The Last," Westerberg's bittersweet farewell to his life as an alt-rock hero, has a lovely lounge-feel to it that doesn't sound a whit downtrodden.
Why does it sound so happy? Well, like I mentioned before, this was pretty much Paul Westerberg's first solo album, with the Replacements' name tacked on due to troubles with their label. Hearing these songs, it seems Westerberg didn't feel obligated to write songs that sounded like the Replacements anymore and could finally show off his "mature" side without risking his band looking like a bunch of ninnies. All Shook Down, to me, is the sound of Westerberg reveling in his newfound freedom and delivering a bunch of sweet, well-written songs without having to worry about whether or not he'd finally "break" into heavy MTV rotation. At this point in his career, he knew the Replacements were never gonna make it big; despite all their obvious talent, the radio-polished Pleased To Meet Me and Don't Tell A Soul weren't exactly flying off the shelves, and the band just didn't care anymore. Maybe that sad, muted defeat is what makes All Shook Down such a downer - the fact that one of the finest bands of the '80s would never be heard beyond college radio. The music might be happy, but not what it implies.
I haven't heard Paul Westerberg's solo stuff. I've been told through the grapevine that it's kinda hit-or-miss, but if it's anywhere near as good as All Shook Down I imagine that I'd enjoy it on some level. I love the Replacements, from the ragged-idiocy of their early years to their bastards-of-young voice-of-a-generation mid-80's peak, but I'll be damned if I don't gravitate to this album almost as much as Sorry Ma or even Tim. It's nothing earth shattering, but it's a comforting little gem of an album, and one of the best displays of Paul Westerberg's songwriting ability money can buy.