Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Learning How to Fail

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For some of us, last Tuesday was a long time coming. I’d like to say that I’m civic-minded enough to be talking about the Pennsylvania primary, but I’m not. You see, while many folks of my age and general political persuasion were holding their breath for Barack Obama to defy expectations and somehow take the Keystone State, my concentration was on a matter of far less political import* – the long-awaited reissues of the first four Replacements releases. When I say long-awaited, I’m talking years, here. I’ve been looking forward to these babies, in one form or another, since around the time we started writing years with 2 at the beginning.

You might consider it odd that I was excited at all about a quartet of albums (well, three albums and one EP) that I’ve practically had memorized for about 15 years. Even odder still is that the biggest selling point here – the rare, bonus tracks – have become increasingly available since the advent of the internet (though a surprising number appear on the reissues in slightly different forms).

Thus is Replacements fandom, though. Ask the right kind of Replacements fan what he or she loves about them, and you won’t get the kind of reply you’d get from a U2 fan or a Modest Mouse fan asked a similar question (maybe a Springsteen one, though). No, you’ll get a story about that fan’s first time hearing the band, an explanation of how Tim made high school bearable, an ordered list of favorite ‘Mats albums, and possibly a lengthy declaration of faith, complete with recitations from the Gospel of Paul and, perhaps, the Epistle to Tommy About the Vomit on the Ceiling or the Parable of The Master Tapes Getting Dumped in the Mississippi.

I’m not going to do that here, since the gushing all starts to sound the same after a while. Instead, I’m going to take a slightly more analytical approach to one of the reissued albums, probably the band’s most celebrated early moment, Let It Be (if you want a Let It Be analysis of the more personal, enthusiastic life-changing sort, check out Colin Meloy’s book on the same topic, which has disappointingly little to say about the actual album, but is still a good read).

To Flirt With Hyperbole…

Let It Be is the least likely album ever to be deemed a classic.

On paper, it doesn’t hold together. Sure, the band’s first bona-fide pop song “I Will Dare,” starts things off in a manner befitting a Great Album, but things quickly descend (or ascend, depending on how you look at it) into chaos. Let’s take an inventory of the remaining tracks here:

  • An exuberantly unfocused love song(?) not all that far removed stylistically from the band’s spirited, but not particularly complex, earlier work.
  • A punky paean to … ummm…. “coming out” (presumably not out of the closet**) punctuated by an out-of-nowhere jazz piano section.
  • An up-tempo novelty song about a tonsillectomy.
  • An oddly heartfelt piano ballad about fashion and gender politics.
  • A straight-faced KISS cover.
  • A deceptively repetitive anthem of dissatisfaction.
  • A near-instrumental that protests, of all things, music videos.
  • An extended dick joke set to a slight rethinking of “Cat Scratch Fever.”
  • A ballad about the trials of adolescence.
  • A furious screed against answering machines backed by a fuzzed-out electric guitar and minimalist percussion.

Now doesn’t this sound like a terrible, terrible album? There are children starving in Africa, and these guys are angry about music videos and answering machines? If another band released a collection of songs with the above descriptions, chances are good that it would not only fail to live up to classic status, but it would probably be a tossed-off b-sides compilation.

And the perversity doesn’t end there. Many cite the band’s decision to name Let It Be after a Beatles album as an amusing act of cockiness; no one ever seems to mention that it’s not even one of the great Beatles albums! Why not Revolver or Abbey Road? Why the one that the Stones had already titularly tackled? Even in their hubris, the ‘Mats were self-deprecating.

‘Stuck in the Middle’: Context is Everything

The Replacements followed Let It Be with Tim, probably the only other album in the band’s catalog that consistently gets the “classic” label (although some might extend this to Pleased to Meet Me, and the truly perverse might also include the band’s debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, which is one of the all-time-great driving-with-the-windows-down albums, but has little of the nuance of the later stuff***). Tim is far closer to what we expect of a classic album – eleven tracks, one that doesn’t fully deliver, but probably at least six that stand with the best that rock’n’roll has to offer. It’s remarkably solid (“Lay It Down, Clown” aside), like London Calling and Born to Run. But “solid” doesn’t apply to “The Replacements” that the band’s historians (both critics and fans) have popularized. This image of the band is one equally defined by successful stabs at posterity and clumsy stumbles into self-defeat.

The album prior to Let It Be is Hootenanny, practically a proto-Let It Be, in retrospect. Their first hybrid of the punk that informed their first two releases (“Run It,” “Hayday”), the goofball antics that infected their live shows (the title track and “Mr. Whirly” – a Beatles medley with Paul Westerberg-penned words), and the anthemic and melancholy songwriting that would take over in their major label years (“Color Me Impressed” and “Within Your Reach”), Hootenanny probably seemed a perplexing leap forward upon release.

Compared to Let It Be, though, it still seems timid in its honesty. It’s too heavy on those disaffected, snotty moments, as if the band is trying so hard to distract us from those moments of genuine emotion like “Within Your Reach” that, in a fit of nervousness, they’ve resorted to cracking bad jokes. Even “Treatment Bound,” a song that lyrically splits the difference between the heartfelt and the silly, is represented by a sloppy, poorly-recorded home demo with beer bottles clanking in the background – it’s as if the band thought the studio version (newly unearthed on the re-release) might accidentally make it sound like they gave a shit. The thing is that they wore “giving a shit” well, and I suspect this became clear when “Color Me Impressed” and “Within Your Reach” weren’t met with cries of “sell-out” as the band may have secretly feared, but with a fair amount of adoration. It’s as if this babystep into earnest songwriting had to happen for Let It Be to be possible.

‘One Foot in the Door, the Other One in the Gutter…’: Why Let It Be Works

What makes Let It Be resonate with Replacements fans may be that it functions as a miniature model of the band’s mythology. Despite the fact that the latter half of the band’s recorded output is more consistent and may even feature stronger songwriting than anything in the early years, The Replacements are loved, perhaps more than any other band, for their inconsistency. They’re idolized for those shows that degenerated into sloppy covers and drunken antics nearly as much as they are for the revelatory nights that changed the ostensible life or 50. We love to see them fail because we’re in on the joke – they know they’re failing (need proof? one of the unreleased songs that deserves a place on the Pleased to Meet Me reissue later this year is called “Learn How to Fail”).

On Let It Be, they fail perfectly – calculatedly, even. While the band thought to include a slew of their best anthems and ballads, they eschew the professionalism they’d later embrace on Tim. The band and manager, Peter Jesperson, cut T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” for Kiss’ “Black Diamond,” because the former would have been obvious and hip. A song played live at that period called “Look Like an Adult” was stripped of its lyrics and worked into the nearly vocal-less “Seen Your Video.” Instead of going with an additional original song like “Perfectly Lethal” (available on the reissue with almost completely different lyrics than the version circulated on bootlegs for a few years) or “Who’s Gonna Take Us Alive” (curiously not available on the reissue), the band went with “Gary’s Got a Boner,” a purposefully dopey “Cat Scratch Fever” rewrite. But crucially, there are more than enough transcendent moments to balance out the goofs and experiments, which manage to take on some of the transcendence seemingly by proximity.

I’ve come to appreciate Let It Be as a masterpiece of planned recklessness. It documents the anarchic extremes of the band’s mythology, but it’s put together in such a carefully considered way that it’s practically a wink at the fans. It’s one thing to fall apart onstage and still manage to charm and enthrall an audience. That’s lightning-in-a-bottle type stuff. But to be able to replicate this effect on record? That’s artistry and skill. They knew what they were doing in making it look like they didn’t know what they were doing.

* Far less political import, if you ask Westerberg, who’s consistently insisted that the ‘Mats were entirely apolitical over the years, despite the “Reagan-era rebels” tag that sometimes follows them around – “Gina Arnold [who wrote the liner notes to the reissue of “Let it Be”] certainly came closest, but when she started to get political about it, she was pretty much dead wrong.”

** Although Let It Be is certainly the Replacements album that’s most direct about sexuality; “We’re Coming Out” has a (presumably unintentional) gay subtext, “Sixteen Blue” alludes briefly to teen sexual identity confusion, “Androgynous” is a full-on analysis of gender roles, and “Gary’s Got a Boner”… well, that one’s probably just about baseball or Jesus or something.

*** I can’t decide, although I’m probably in the minority in that, while I love Let It Be, Tim, and Pleased to Meet Me about equally for various reasons, I think I give the edge to the polished and oft-reviled Don’t Tell A Soul and All Shook Down over the band’s pre-Let It Be stuff.


Written by Dave

April 29, 2008 at 9:21 pm

Posted in Music

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One Response

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  1. As a Minneapolis girl in her 40s this hits home with me also. I spent many a night doing the First Avenue scene a la black clothing in search of Replacements during the mid 80s. Lots of folks here worship these guys.


    July 8, 2008 at 1:44 pm

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