When The Replacements left the indie world to sign with a major label four years ago, fans of the Minneapolis quartet wondered if the corporate music industry could somehow subvert the rock underground's most feckless heroes and turn them into a calculating hit machine. They needn't have worried. The band — raised on the fodder of Seventies radio and the fiery irreverence of Eighties punk — continued exploring its mutant combination of chaos, sensitivity and self-abuse and filled two albums (Tim and Pleased to Meet Me) with explosive energy and playful, incisive lyrics, leavening the power with sturdy melodies and tender sentimentality. The group's gigs remained joyously haphazard mixes of song fragments, lengthy pauses and impromptu cover versions, from Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" to R.E.M.'s "Radio Free Europe."
But as the Replacements shrugged off external pressures to toe a straighter line, personal maturity struck from within. Faced with the possibility of indulging his way to an early grave, Paul Westerberg, the group's twenty-nine-year-old songwriter, took a safer road: he grew up. The author of "Treatment Bound" and "Shiftless When Idle" traded in his careless ways and married his longtime girlfriend.
The band made a critical move toward self-respect in 1986 by sacking guitarist Bob Stinson, in light of whose increasingly erratic behavior Westerberg had become a straight man. When the Replacements hit the road again with Slim Dunlap in the lineup, they played complete songs; set lists rather than inebriated whimsy guided the band's performances.
Don't Tell a Soul reveals the extent of the rethink. Proceeding from the experiments of prior records (which ranged as far as cocktail jazz on Pleased to Meet Me's "Nightclub Jitters"), this subdued album turns exceptions into rules, reducing the ration of loud rock & roll in favor of detours into funk, folk and Beatlish pop. More than half of the songs on Don't Tell a Soul are built on acoustic guitars; layers of harmony vocals, keyboards and modest studio effects are part of the sonic overhaul. Outside the handful of traditional rock numbers, electric guitars appear only to play brief solos and provide texture; otherwise, Westerberg's unmistakable shaggy voice and Chris Mars's decisive 4 4 snare work are all that keeps the LP from drifting away.
Amid such artistic adventurism. Westerberg's writing remains the band's rich core. Don't Tell a Soul is full of his sharp-tongued wordplay and idiosyncratic musical structures. Although the rampant diversity occasionally stymies the album's momentum, many of the songs are quietly powerful, expanding the group's repertoire in both quality and scope.
"Talent Show," a plain but pleasant recollection of the band's amateur days, and "Back to Back," an intricate, catchy number with a jarring key change, open the LP on a superficially upbeat note. With the exception of "Achin' to Be," a twangy country song that paints an enigmatic portrait, and "Darlin' One," a memorable minor-key love song enhanced by majestic production and an uplifting chorus, the rest of the album takes a grimmer view.
"We'll Inherit the Earth" is a soaring anthem of alienation whose acoustic power strumming suggests a postapocalypse Moody Blues. "I'll Be You," the record's most engaging tune, is a cry of disillusionment, sung with mounting desperation. Describing himself as "a rebel without a clue," Westerberg offers to swap lives in the hopes of escaping the bitter disappointment of dreams realized. Selfcritical dolor hits a rueful peak in "Rock-n-Roll Ghost," an ethereal dirge about the band's wayward past, sung in a haunted voice over extended Mellotron strains and mournful slide guitar.
Sadness turns to vitriol in "They're Blind," a stinging attack on an unspecified enemy (critics? record buyers?). As the band plays a slow shuffle accented by mandolin and doo-wop backing vocals, Westerberg sings, "The things you hold dearly are scoffed at and yearly judged once and then left aside/They're blind/ They hold you too close to the light." But even careful examination doesn't illuminate the intentions of "Asking Me Lies," a Stonesy funk stroll that nonchalantly strings together non sequiturs.
Mindless defiance of rock-star traditions is what originally endeared the Replacements to those unmoved by ambitious bands of wanna-be stars. But with irresponsibility threatening to become an identity — just another exploitable gimmick — the band has gone out on a new limb, with an audacious album that reclaims its valued independence by confounding audience expectations.