‘Dead Man’s Pop:’ a reissue, a reckoning, a resurrection.
Mike Donovan | Tuesday, October 1, 2019
Paul Westerberg’s voice dwells in the sore-throated dissatisfaction of an exaggerated sigh: hot air, comforting the mouth of a man with not much else to his name, save some warmhearted whiskers. It was a voice strained to all ends in its youth — “shiftless when … idle,” not too fond of “school” — but allowed rest as its owner’s sensitivities grew, a “regular” fixture among crowds huddled beneath the “skyway” or kissing “on the bus.” And it was a voice deserving of its cult following — at least until its 1989 misstep “Don’t Tell A Soul.” “I’ll Be You,” it said, addressing the mainline power poppers of its day. It got rid of its edges, its grooves, became smooth, all the while singing, “I’ll Be You.”
Thanks in part to the unrecognizable polish on Westerberg’s voice, “Don’t Tell a Soul” earned its title, crystallizing a reputation as the unutterable element of the Replacement’s catalogue. Don’t tell a soul, fans said. The Replacements sold out! Don’t tell a soul. The ’Mats have gone soulless. At these pronunciations, the fans went headlong into the ’90s where they rolled around on fresh Pavement and booked suites in the Neutral Milk Hotel. As far as they knew, Paul was dead.
Three decades later, the autopsy results have finally surfaced — a reissue, a reckoning, “Dead Man’s Pop.”
Peeling back the disgustingly shiny skin covering the 1989 record’s corpse (gloss courtesy of late ’80s hitmaker Chris Lord-Alge), “Dead Man’s Pop” finds good bones in Westerberg’s songwriting, perhaps the best to his career. His tracks, previously suffocating under the weight of Lord-Alge metallic sheen, now have space to breath. Re-packaged in the off-the-cuff recording style of “Don’t Tell a Soul’s” initial producer, Matt Wallace (who gave up his job to Lord-Alge before the LP’s release), they’ve regained the smell of barrooms and bendy roads synonymous with a ‘Mats record.
The Wallace mix of album opener, “Talent Show,” spearheads ”Don’t Tell a Soul’s“ posthumous return to form, swapping Lorde-Alge’s skinny boy droll for loose guitars, meaty drums and a glorious mid-song screw-up. A deglamorized rendition of the ’Mats only (sorta) big charting hit, “I’ll Be You” follows on “Talent Show’s” heels, continuing the resurrection chant.
But “Dead Man’s Pop” only really comes to life on disc two with the appearance of “Portland (Alternative Mix)” — a jangle pop masterstroke erected, dissected and torn to shreds during the infamous Bearsville recording sessions. From “Portland” onward, “Dead Man’s Pop” descends into the bowels of “Don’t Tell a Soul’s” genesis, digging up such gems as “We Know the Night” (a bumbling piano ballad recorded several times over folk-hero Tom Waits) and “Gudbuy’ T’Jane,” a sloppy love-letter to the barstool bravado of acts like Johnny Thunders and NRBQ.
Discs three and four, which document an uncharacteristically tight live show at the University of Wisconsin, offer the set’s reanimated corpses room to wander among the band’s most beloved songs — “I Will Dare,” “Bastards of Young,” “Color Me Impressed,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Answering Machine” and others. Though these recordings don’t rumble with the lawless thunder captured on “Live at Maxwell’s” or shiver with the sensitivity of Westerberg’s countless acoustic outtakes, they do manage to tell a ’Mats story not yet told: that of young discontents letting out one final, dissatisfied sigh before encroaching adulthood squeezes their act lifeless. The tale’s worth a listen.
Album: “Dead Man’s Pop”
Band: The Replacements
Label: Sire Records
Favorite Tracks: “Portland (Alternative Mix),” “Talent Show (Matt Wallace Mix),” “We Know the Night (feat. Tom Waits)”
If You Like: Big Star, Tom Waits, R.E.M
Shamrocks: 5 out of 5