Thursday, August 14, 2008
Up until about a week ago, I had no clue former Replacements singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg had a new solo album out. I mean, admittedly I don't check up on the guy too often, but when I caught sight of the album on Pitchfork I was a bit surprised. I knew that he hadn't released an album in at least four years, so the question was raised - why had I not heard about this? Where was the buildup? The anticipation? The press release? Why wasn't Mr. Westerberg's new sure-to-be-a-masterwork being touted as the Next Big Thing??
Well, the answer to that is simple. Mr. Westerberg's 49:00 was released to the American public in mid-July, and was recorded just a week before release. Not only that, but it was released only on the internet, exclusively available for download in Amazon.com's MP3 Music Store. The album itself was promoted with silly variations on the number 49, including its release date (July 19th, marketed as "June 49th") and could be bought off of Amazon for just 49 cents (inexplicably, the album is only 44 minutes long - more on that later). To top it all off, the album isn't even divided up into tracks - it's one big chunk of audio, with no breaks between songs. On the surface, the whole thing sounds pretty slapdash, and even with his weird means of distributing it, 49:00's internet-only status makes it seem like Westerberg wanted to keep this release out of the public eye, for whatever reason. As such, I expected a string of rough demos at best.
But 49:00 has been a very pleasant surprise. Again, I'm really only familiar with Paul's work with the Replacements, and the most I've heard of his solo work has been All Shook Down, which is technically the last Replacements LP. So despite having little to no knowledge of Paul's musical career for the past two decades, if 49:00 is any indication he's still keepin' on keepin' on, writing some wonderful wonderful melodies. And it's made all the more alluring with its formatting gimmick, giving the songs no titles and allowing the album to be considered as one consolidated work rather than just a bunch of songs.
Now, when I say "gimmick," I don't mean that in a derogatory way. Let me explain said "gimmick" to you - 49:00 is one big audio file, but it isn't just a bunch of songs stapled next to each other. Rather, the songs here bleed right into each other, with random song snippets jumping into the mix for sometimes as little as seconds at a time before moving on to another song. And they don't just cancel each other out - sometimes they even play over each other, epitomized by the album's halfway point during which two different songs are actually playing at the exact same time, each out of a different speaker. This makes for a mix of fully-realized Westerberg tunes and a bunch of silly throwaways, yet in the context of this giant musical clusterfuck they all kinda sound the same. In a good way.
Here's the best analogy I can use to describe 49:00's sound: it's as if someone decided to record a bunch of songs off of an all-Westerberg radio station, but mistakenly kept recording new songs over the old ones over and over again. What 49:00 amounts to is a sloppily-ripped Paul Westerberg mixtape. (I wish I could take credit for that analogy, but I'm pretty sure Pitchfork's used it. And Westerberg himself, for that matter. Just look at that album art!)
So while the format of this album is weirdly experimental, the music is much less of a stretch; it's pretty much standard Paul Westerberg. But that's hardly a bad thing. The whole album has a very laid-back, silly feel to it, which I'm sure was intentional (Westerberg plays all of the instruments himself, so that's no surprise). While it's kind of hard for me to refer to specific songs on the album, since none of them have actual names and Paul's lyrics are often very hard to discern, many of them have a similar country-rockish feel, with occasional lapses into hard-rockin' Tom Pettyisms and unusual balladry. Song titles do pop out at me, since many of the song's choruses have constantly repeated lines, so I'll give this a try - the lovely opener "Terry Who You Gonna Marry," the reflective "Something In My Life Is Missing," and the hilariously crass "Everyone's Stupid" are probably the easiest to label. 49:00 doesn't vary all that much musically, but when it does branch out a little it's very enjoyable, like the country shuffle of "New Year's Day" or the out-and-out hard rock of "Devil Raised a Good Boy" that doesn't sound nearly as forced as the rockers on All Shook Down. Other personal favorites are the the snarky "Gotta Get It Out Of My System" and "Goodnight Sweet Prince," a surprisingly devastating song about what I assume to be the death of Westerberg's father, judging from the lyrics.
"Goodnight Sweet Prince," actually, becomes the album's most memorable moment. As I mentioned before, halfway through 49:00 two songs start playing at once. It starts off with "Sweet Prince," which as I said is a surprising - if not slightly unusual - moment of tender emotion on an album filled with happy, silly melodies. But while Westerberg is pouring his heart out, another song starts cutting in and out of the listener's left speaker, continuing until both songs are actually playing at the same time. And it's not like both songs have similar tempos or chords or anything - they both sound totally out-of-sync playing next to each other. It's completely disorienting, it makes half of "Goodnight Sweet Prince" inaudible, and it almost makes me wonder if "Sweet Prince" was actually a sincere song about death or just a twisted joke. Either way, it's probably the most entertaining part of the album.
Actually, I take that back - the most entertaining part of the album is a bunch of random 60's/70's pop covers near the end of the song cycle, including (but not limited to) the Beatles' "Hello Goodbye," the Stones' "Stupid Girl," the Kinks' "Dandy" and Elton John's "Rocket Man," among others. It's fun while it lasts, but unfortunately it's probably the reason that 49:00 was eventually pulled off of Amazon after a short run due to copyright issues. As such, by the time I finally heard about this album, I was forced to Torrent it. I couldn't even throw Mr. Westerberg, one of my personal favorite songwriters, and extra half a buck. How sad.
As for the confusion about the 43:55 running time? Well, in response to 49:00 being pulled, Westerberg put up a new song on Tunecore called - you guessed it - 5:05. How droll.
And why is Mr. Westerberg obsessed with that goddamned number 49?! Well, he's turning 49 at the end of this year. Criminy. What's with all of these alt-rock icons jumping into their forties and fifties like this?? Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Wayne Coyne, Eddie Vedder - hell, even good 'ol Steve Malkmus is like 42. Barely any of my favorite rock musicians are younger than 40. Those self-absorbed assholes, aging naturally and all that.
Oh yeah, the album. Find it! Hear it! The whole one-big-audio-file thing is a gimmick, but it's an awesome gimmick. It's the best goddamned audio-format gimmick I've seen since the Flaming Lips' Zaireeka, only the music is nothing shocking. But that's okay! The music's still lovely as all fuck! Paul Westerberg is almost five decades old and he's still writing fantastic music! Cherish him, people. And even if you don't dig the music, I guarantee that you won't hear another album released in 2008 quite like this one.
P.S.: I've actually found an unofficial tracklisting for 49:00, created by PaulWesterberg.net. Seems like I've gotten several of the song titles / lyrics completely wrong! "New Year's Day" is actually "Visitor's Day?" "Heat Risin'" is actually "Kentucky Risin'"? Am I deaf or something?