When God was giving out self-confidence, where the hell was Paul Westerberg? Out buying beer? For someone so blessed with songwriting ability, the singer-guitarist seems unduly consumed with doubt about his own worth and that of the Replacements, his merry band of Minneapolis rock & roll idiot savants. "One more chance to get it all wrong ... one more chance to get it half-right," he bawled desperately in the semiautobiographical blitzkrieg "We're Comin' Out," on the group's 1984 album Let It Be.
The equally raucous "I Don't Know," on Pleased to Meet Me, the Replacements' fifth full-length platter, is Westerberg's latest ode to his own uncertainty. "One foot in the door/The other foot in the gutter," he sings in his trademark rasp against the crude Stonesy gallop of drummer Chris Mars and bassist Tommy Stinson. While Mars and Stinson whine, "I don't know," like a stoned Greek chorus over the baritone sax of guest Steve Douglas, Westerberg details the tragicomic hopelessness of his dilemma and that of his vagabond band ("Our lawyer's on the phone.... What did we do now?"). Too talented to play the fool, disgusted with showbiz protocol, he dreads the very success his undeniable gifts can bring. "The sweet smell that they adore/Well, I think I'd rather smother," Westerberg snarls defiantly in the chorus. But near the end, when he asks, "Whatcha gonna do with your life?" a barely audible voice replies, with dreary resignation, "Nothin'."
Pleased to Meet Me, like nearly everything in Westerberg's oeuvre, is about not fitting in, about square pegs surrounded by nothing but round holes. What distinguishes Westerberg from the misfits populating his songs is his uncanny ability to speak for the tonguetied, articulating their aspirations and insecurities with intuitive sensitivity, boozy whimsy and straight street talk — leavened with a little poetic license. As a lyricist, he is fond of the hilariously surreal (in "Can't Hardly Wait," he sings, "Jesus rides beside me/He never buys any smokes"), and he has a knack for dramatically potent non sequiturs (in "Shooting Dirty Pool," he delivers the acidic put-down "You're the coolest guy I ever have smelled"). As a melodist, he revels in a kind of perverted pop classicism, hanging his spiritual tensions and mischievous lyrics on offbeat hooks and change-up choruses like some grungy offspring of Randy Newman and Elton John; meanwhile, the band's guitar-drums gunfire threatens to turn your brain to tapioca.
The result is an album alive with the crackle of conflicting emotions and kamikaze rock & roll fire. Nowhere on Pleased to Meet Me is that tortured vibrancy more evident than in "The Ledge," a powerful study of teen suicide set to an urgent beat and death-knell guitar arpeggios. Westerberg makes no excuses here, no accusations. Instead, there is a haunting clarity in the face of eternal darkness, sympathy not just for the poor devil on the ledge but also for the people down below, whose help comes too late: "I'm the boy they can't ignore/For the first time in my life I'm sure/All the love sent up high to pledge/Won't reach the ledge." There is no loss of life in the next song, "Never Mind," but when Westerberg sings, "All over but the shouting," in that hoarse bark of his, you can hear that same need to be understood, even as he walks away from an irreparably damaged relationship.
Life is not always a bed of nails in Replacementsville. "Red Red Wine" is a simple ode to the pleasures of the grape, a delightful rouser in the Mohawk party spirit of the band's thrash classics Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (1981) and Stink (1982). "Skyway" and "Can't Hardly Wait" are both songs of gentle longing, the former inspired by the elevated walkways in downtown Minneapolis ("Oh, then one day/I saw you walkin' down that little one-way/Where the place I catch my ride most every day/There wasn't a damn thing I could do or say") and played on acoustic guitars, which lend a heavenly grace. "Can't Hardly Wait" is a touching snapshot of road weariness in which Westerberg falls into dreams of love and hearth on a sweet pillow of strings and soulful brass ("I'll be home when I'm sleeping/I can't hardly wait").
But what fuels Pleased to Meet Me is the combination of Westerberg's instinctive grasp of adolescent trauma and the band's basement-rock fury, brilliantly produced by Memphis studio legend Jim Dickinson, who gets it warts and all, like the loud amplifier buzz that opens "Red Red Wine." Indeed, the jewel in this collection of wonderfully rough diamonds is "Alex Chilton," a frenzied celebration of the precocious frontman of the Box Tops and Big Star, who skidded into artistic paralysis in the late Seventies before hitting the comeback trail three years ago. (Chilton produced demos for the last Replacements LP, Tim, and plays guitar on "Can't Hardly Wait.") With Mars's snare drum echoing like a rifle shot and his own guitar balled up into a clenched fist of distortion, Westerberg salutes Chilton's genius with a knockout melody the equal of anything in the Big Star catalog while examining the insane pressure of living up to one's own myth — "Children by the millions sing, 'Will Alex Chilton come around?'"
Will children by the millions sing the same thing about Paul Westerberg in a few years' time? Not likely. In the Replacements (now back to quartet strength with new guitarist Slim Dunlap replacing Tommy Stinson's older brother, Bob, who left after Tim), Westerberg is blessed with a band of renegade realists, sometimes pickled out of their heads in concert but tough as nails in the clinch, anchoring Westerberg's meditations in bar-band bedrock. Tracks like "I.O.U." and "Shooting Dirty Pool" practically sound like Exile on Main Street at 78 rpm. It is ironic that Westerberg and the Replacements can make such a joyful noise out of so much anguish and insecurity. But on Pleased to Meet Me, the pleasure is all yours.