The Replacements - Let It Be - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

The Replacements - Let It Be

by Jon Burke Rating:10 Release Date:1984-10-02
The Replacements - Let It Be
The Replacements - Let It Be

The Buzzcocks’ self-released Spiral Scratch EP shot forth into the world, without the help of a record label, in early 1977. That seminal moment is generally agreed by rock historians to be the advent of independent music. College radio stations, already in-tune with the avant-garde, began playing music from such disparate US acts as R.E.M., Beat Happening and St. Paul Minnesota’s own Hüsker Dü. These acts eschewed the synth-pop of the moment and instead preferred a lo-fi, stripped-down, guitar(s) + bass + drum formula which resulted in music that felt both incredibly raw and viscerally real. Though the aforementioned acts all made crucial contributions to music—contributions whose echoes can still be heard in the best music of today—the most important band among the early “indies”, The Replacements, emerged from St. Paul’s twin city, Minneapolis.

Before I proceed with this review, I must make a confession: when it comes to The Replacements I am a poseur. My friend Jim tried valiantly, time and again, to get me into the ‘Mats, and so many other incredible bands, all throughout high school and I just didn’t get it. So instead I spent (read: wasted) all my time on the relatively low-hanging musical fruit of acts like Alice In Chains and Smashing Pumpkins while ignoring some really amazing stuff by better, more musically interesting, bands. It took me until college before I finally started to understand what Jim was trying to do for me. With that off my chest we can proceed with an incredibly-overdue rave about one of the most important records of the early-1980s.

In the beginning (Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash) The Replacements were straight ahead punk rock. They wanted to sound like Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers, and to a certain extent they did, even going so far as to write an oddly prescient track about Thunders’ death; “Johnny's Gonna Die" foretold Thunders’ drug-related passing less than a decade later. On their second record, Hootenanny, the ‘Mats took a step in a more musically complex direction by embracing more than just the speed and noise of their original record. Instead, hints of country, blues and rockabilly were peppered throughout Hootenanny and tracks like “Within Your Reach” began to really show-off singer Paul Westerberg’s chops as not only an iconoclastic drunken frontman but also a lyrical genius. That said, it wouldn’t be until the Replacements’ third record, Let It Be, before everything would coalesce to form a true musical masterpiece.

While the album’s ridiculously blasphemous title may have evolved from the Replacements’ nothing is sacred, Beatles included ethos, on Let It Be, no matter how chest-thumpingly proud Westerberg and company are of their snide attitudes, and bad behavior, something had changed. Beatles-esque melodies had started to creep into the band’s music while, simultaneously, highly nuanced opinions about life and love were emerging from Westerberg’s songwriting. Thus, while the Let It Be joke is what the ‘Mats want fans to focus on, parallels between the two albums run deeper than just some snotty punks taking the piss out of the Fab Four.

Let It Be kicks-off with “I Will Dare”, a jangly, post-punk take on the classic rock n’ roll theme of risky teenage behavior resulting from sneaking away to be with someone your parents probably wouldn’t approve of. The opening lines imply a kind of slightly-lecherous, May-December, subtext to the romance which gets overlooked in most similarly-themed songs:

“How young are you?/ How old am I?/ Let's count the rings around my eyes.”

But then Westerberg subverts the power of the age gap by highlighting his anxious, nervousness while awaiting her call. Though the young woman might be younger than the narrator, she’s aware that his cool, casual, I-don’t-care front belies the depth of his crush on her and that he’s actually competing for her affections. The longer she waits to call him, the more Westerberg begins to compulsively question everything about their relationship—including her youthful innocence:

“Call me on Thursday, if you will/ Or call me on Wednesday, better still/ Ain't lost yet, so I gotta be the winner/ Fingernails and cigarettes, a lousy dinner/ How young, are you?”

The snotty punk rock of “Favorite Thing” (in which Westerberg screams: “I don’t give a single shit!”) and “We’re Comin’ Out” try to suggest the introspection of “I Will Dare” was just a fluke. That is, until the soaring bridge of “Favorite Thing” in which the Stinson/Mars rhythm section simply owns their shot at center stage and, then again, during the breakdown of “We’re Comin’ Out” which features piano, snapping fingers and Westerberg’s rough-but-sweet crooning. Sure, it all explodes again before the end of the song but this is clearly no longer the same band of unruly misfits who once forgot to take out the trash.

The middle section of Let It Be is home to the album’s relatively less interesting tracks. “Tommy Got His Tonsils Out” sounds a bit like an early prototype for the loud-quiet-loud sonic formula The Pixies would be following just a few years later. “Gary’s Got A Boner” is simply a ridiculous bar rock anthem. “Black Diamond,” a KISS cover, gives the original some overdue cred for its influence on punk rock. “Seen Your Video” has always seemed to me like an inherently lesser, inverse take on “Left of the Dial”—a track from Tim, the ‘Mats follow-up to Let It Be. These four songs are not bad, per se, just dwarfed by the vitality and creativity driving the rest of the album.

Following in the footsteps of “Within Your Reach,” Westerberg included some slower, more lyrically heartfelt songs on Let It Be. The first, “Androgynous,” which has recently become something of an indie anthem for LGBTQIA community, focuses on the way the younger generation embraces gender, sexuality and love in more legitimately meaningful ways than their parents did. Westerberg sees the trappings of fashion, style and social norms as little more than passing fads which wax and wane over the centuries as kids just try to figure out their own identities. To call “Androgynous” prescient would be akin to calling “Unsatisfied” a break-up song.

Though, on its surface “Unsatisfied” is about coming to terms with a broken relationship, the song is really about honesty and the ways we lie to our partners, and to ourselves, instead of facing the reality that some relationships simply cannot work. It’s also the rare song that somehow is more chorus than verse and sustains that disparity so well that one hardly even takes note. If there’s a single downside to this classic song, it would be that the Goo Goo Dolls have made a career out of aping-out lesser versions of “Unsatisfied,” over and over.

The blueprint for Westerberg’s post-Replacements solo career can be found in “Sixteen Blue”—an almost Springsteenian take on teenage ennui. What makes “Sixteen Blue” so powerful is its sincerity which never enters into melancholy but, instead, balances perfectly between a poetically sweet sentiment and angst-y bittersweet longing—two major themes from Westerberg’s solo works. Another major theme for Westerberg, miscommunication, is focus of the album’s brilliant closing track, “Answering Machine.”

Though it could be read as a screed against the digital culture that seeks to divide us from one another, as much as it connects us, “Answering Machine” is really about the ways in which person-to-person communication is more honest than a recording. In this way Westerberg might be indicting Let It Be itself as a sub-par form of conveying his points about life and love and boners because as he put it:

“How do you say I miss you to/ An answering machine?/ How do you say good night to/ An answering machine?/ How do you say I'm lonely to/ An answering machine?”

Westerberg’s voice, throughout “Answering Machine” approaches Waitsian-levels of rasp and gravel and sounds at times quite painful. This painful whelping is overlaid by an automated message, repeating, “If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and try again...” It’s the perfect conclusion to the first of several perfect Replacements records. Both Tim and Pleased to Meet Me are vital albums for any music lover but Let It Be came first and for that reason alone it has a slight edge, in terms of cultural significance, and staying power. 

Overall Rating (2)

5 out of 5 stars
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