The Past Presents revisits revered albums from the past 20-25 years to ask the question, “Is this album still a classic, or has it lost its edge over the years?”. Was it a great record for that particular time and place, or is it something we’ll be passing on to our kids? It also looks at the “lost classics” – countless albums that should have earned more attention but for one reason or another fell through the cracks.
I’ve always thought of Paul Westerberg as one of those artists who worked really hard to get it right, and when he did, people stopped listening. The Replacements became legends with records like Tim, Let It Be and Pleased To Meet Me, fueled primarily by Westerberg’s songs and vocals combined with the work of the Stinson brothers and Chris Mars. While Westerberg was at the forefront of the Replacements success, it was clear that their sound was a group effort. When Bob Stinson was replaced by Slim Dunlap on the band’s last two records it definitively became Westerberg’s show. These records, Don’t Tell A Soul and All Shook Down, were mellower affairs that steered clear of the more punk-infused songs of their past.
As the 80’s came to an end so did the Replacements. The 1990’s presented an opportunity for a fresh start for Paul Westerberg and that start came in the form of Cameron Crowe’s 1991 film “Singles.” Westerberg had two songs on the soundtrack, “Dyslexic Heart” and “Waiting for Somebody”, both of which were featured prominently in the film. The soundtrack was a hit and Westerberg’s first solo effort was well received. This set the stage for the 1993 release of his first proper solo album, 14 Songs. The album is a strong debut with strong content start to finish. There are rockers and ballads evenly distributed across the album with tracks like “Knockin’ On Mine,” “World Class Fad” and “Silver Naked Ladies” standing out as Westerberg gems. Add the mellower hits like “Dice Behind Your Shades,” “Someone I Once Knew” and “First Glimmer” and you’ve got the makings of a classic album. Like many albums released between 1990 and 1993, 14 Songs suffers a bit from overproduction, but overall it holds up nearly twenty years on.
14 Songs was well received by fans and critics; the most common complaint I recall was that it sounded too much like the Replacements. Thinking back this seems an odd thing to complain about. Considering the reception his solo debut received it seems strange that the release of his second album, Eventually, sent Westerberg’s career tumbling toward obscurity. Honestly, the solo portion of Paul Westerberg’s career just came a few years too late. In 1991 Westerberg had tapped the vein of the R.E.M.-inspired alternative sound and given it some teeth. The songs on the “Singles” soundtrack were sing-a-long rockers and the fans were ready. By 1993 the rest of the bands on the Singles soundtrack had trumped the sound R.E.M. made popular, effectively closing the window on Westerberg’s long-term solo success. Angst-ridden rock was the name of the game and Paul Westerberg’s introspective rock was easily moved aside.
The good news is 14 Songs is still out there waiting to be discovered. Singer-songwriter is no longer a term reserved for James Taylor and Paul Simon. It’s time for a new generation of fans to dig into Westerberg’s solo work. 14 Songs is the gem of Westerberg’s output, so please spend some time with this album; if you need more check out Suicaine Gratification and Folker.