Photo Credit: Paul Natkin/Wire Image
Leave it to the Replacements to use what’s probably their least-liked record as the centerpiece of their most elaborate and ambitious re-issue release to date. The new sixty-track behemoth Dead Man’s Pop is chiefly an attempt to breathe new life into their sixth studio album Don’t Tell a Soul, which when originally released in 1989 was if only by default a bright spot in an era dominated by hair metal, monotonous dance music and teeny-bopper fluff, but it undeniably lacked the variety, wit and, well, soul, of the band’s previous offerings.
To be fair, some of those previous Replacements albums – particularly Let It Be (1984), Tim (1985) and even the underrated Pleased to Meet Me (1987) – were such classics they would have been difficult for anyone to live up to. The ‘Mats offered a balance between raw energy and genuine emotion which few others at the time even attempted (let alone mastered), while lead singer and guitarist Paul Westerberg made the gradual transition from angry punk rocker to romantic balladeer seem like a natural evolution rather than a sell-out. However, as unique as their music was, their story was the too-often told tale of commercial success being the only thing that seemed to allude them.
Despite its shortcomings, Don’t Tell a Soul did little to erode the notion that Westerberg was very likely the greatest rock songwriter to emerge after 1980 (which arguably remains the case) and here, original producer Danny Wallace’s more meat-and-potatoes remixes of the album’s ten tracks – replacing Chris Lord-Alge’s well-meaning but ultimately overwrought original handling – not only safely reinforce Westerberg’s brilliance, but does give a fuller, clearer picture of the songs as they were perhaps originally meant to be heard. This includes the bittersweet self-awareness of “Talent Show” and “Aching to Be,” the candid but defiant introspection of “I’ll Be You” (the band’s only charting single), and the bouncy “Asking Me Lies,” a song that could’ve saved Mick Jagger’s solo career.“Rock and Roll Ghost” is haunting perfection; and while musically the somewhat calmer album may have seemed like the ‘Mats final severance from their garage band roots, a punk outlook is retained at least lyrically on songs like “We’ll Inherit the Earth” and “Anywhere is Better than Here”.
Everything is then stripped even further down Disc 3 (of the CD version) which comprises demos and alternate takes, mostly repeated from the main album but a few not heard elsewhere, including the Stones-like “Gudbuy t’Jane,” and “Last Thing in the World,” an unassailable return to the band’s punk beginnings. Although it’s the five raw tracks that feature the band playing alongside the great gravel-voiced crooner Tom Waits – mostly spontaneous and supposedly recorded while all were intoxicated (and sounding like it) – that show the Replacements’ uncanny ability to remain grounded while exploring new territory.
The second half of Dead Man’s Pop is comprised of a recording of a concert that the band played in Milwaukee during that period, in its entirely. “Entirety” in this case is no misnomer, as the twenty-nine tracks include onstage banter, mistakes and false starts (i.e. half a try at “Sadly Beautiful,” here a work-in-progress whose completed form would turn up on their next album All Shook Down). Despite “Sadly Beautiful,” nearly all the songs – including the classics “I Will Dare,” “Unsatisfied,” “Left of the Dial” and “Alex Chilton” – soar with the fuel of the live energy propelling them.
Even though Paul Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson mounted a successful reunion tour in 2015, Westerberg has expressed his disenchantment with what he described as “whoring his past,” which means that most likely all we’ll ever get “new” from the Replacements is reworking’s of older material such as this one. It’s just as well, since the world has so much catching up to do in terms of experiencing the Replacements, and Dead Man’s Pop leaves those of us who already have to wonder just what the hell is wrong with everybody else.