Paul Westerberg sounds like he's having fun again. It's such a simple thing, but it's an element that started disappearing from his songs as the plaudits for his songwriting increased. Over the past decade, as he sporadically issued a series of increasingly spotty and labored-over solo albums, the fun all but disappeared.
Sure, each of those albums Fourteen Songs, Eventually, Suicane Gratifaction added a couple of songs to his celebrated canon, but even the best of those ("Knockin on Mine," "It's a Wonderful Lie,") lacked the joie de vivre that made The Replacements a band that could simultaneously break your heart and save your life, all the while making you laugh out loud with the sheer joy of listening to their music.
Want proof? Compare the singing on, say, "Within Your Reach" on The Replacements' Hootenanny to "Actor in the Street" from Suicane Gratifaction. The former sounds full of life and possibility, while the latter is listless, almost dead on arrival. But now Westerberg has the "spark" back. You can hear it in the way he sings "It's high summer!" in "High Time," the lead-off track on Mono, a solo album he's released using the name "Grandpa Boy." Mono is easily his best work in 15 years.
For the first time since Pleased to Meet Me, there's no doubt about this album it kicks in, and stays in. If you ever loved the 'mats that is, if you ever loved rock 'n' roll Mono will knock you out.
Mono just appeared, with zero fanfare, as a companion/teaser for Stereo, Westerberg's first album under his own name for the currently hot Vagrant label (the Get Up Kids), and there's no doubt that Stereo will be the one with all of the buzz.
Nevertheless, as the first full-length Grandpa Boy album (there were an EP and single a couple of years ago), this is also the first formal acknowledgment of the dichotomy that has fueled Westerberg's music from the start. He's always been equal parts cocky and terrified, rocker and balladeer, subtle lyricist and sloppy recycler. By splitting up his songs and releasing a rock 'n' roll album, Mono, along with the (reportedly) acoustic-based Stereo, he reminds me of Rod Stewart in the early '70s, when he released some glorious, heartbreaking solo records under his own name while simultaneously recording boozy rock 'n' roll with The Faces.
It's a conceit that could backfire. Remember that episode of "Star Trek" where the transporter split Captain Kirk into good and evil? Westerberg might need to have his electric rock 'n' roll and his quieter side on one album to be effective. However, in the case of Mono, freed from the burden of creating a "Paul Westerberg" album, he cuts loose with a short set of riff-fueled rockers that sound fun and relaxed. The ethos, as he calls one song, is "Knock It Right Out."
So from the opening chords of "High Time" to the final fade out of "AAA," that's what he does, knocks out a set of songs that draw you in with their (not deceptively) simple guitar parts. Before you know it, you're waking up the next morning with the chorus of a song like "Kickin' the Stall" already playing in your head. But because it's only a conceit, and he can't help himself, you'll start noticing all of the little touches the stop-and-start rhythm of "Anything but That," the way it takes "Between Love and Like" two verses to get to its chorus, the call-and-response backing vocals of "Eyes Like Sparks" that remind you that, oh yeah, for all of the off-the-cuff feel, this guy is one of the great songwriters of any generation. And because of the mono mix, always on top of everything is that great, great voice tempered by age, maybe, but rough and ready when it needs to be, and as always, honest and direct. And if he isn't writing generation-defining love songs and transcendent bar weepers anymore, Westerberg can still come up with a nice metaphor here and there. My current favorite is "Your eyes like sparks/ My heart like gasoline."
Which ain't "How do you say I'm lonely to an answering machine?," but it'll do. After all, there was a moment where Westerberg fronted the world's greatest trainwreck of a rock 'n' roll band, the perfect combination of balls and brains and heart. But that was 15 years ago, and the 'mats never conquered the universe like they should have, and their moment passed.
We're all (theoretically) older and wiser and should understand that. Maybe I don't need my life saved so much anymore, but I can always do with some more great rock 'n' roll. Like Mono's.