It was good in the end that they came in and played, but I didn’t go in there with that thought in
mind. I was thinking that maybe I would do it by myself and it didn’t turn out that way, but, you
know, I think for the best.
– Paul Westerberg on All Shook Down
Google search “in name only” “all shook down” at the same time. The results are telling. The Replacements’ final album, 1990′s All Shook Down, is indeed a Mats release in name only, with members of the band appearing on a song here and there. Hell, the final line-up of Paul Westerberg, bassist Tommy Stinson, drummer Chris Mars, and guitarist Slim Dunlap appear together on only one song. These were not The Replacements. The sneer had been replaced by approaching sobriety, the sloppy kiss of a fumbling youth replaced by a kiss goodbye. The rebellious collective of twentysomethings had dwindled down to a single, reflective thirtysomething.
The “in name only” attachment on certain records comes off more as a stigma than a simple observation. Despite receiving good press, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Oceania has struggled to shake off fans clamoring for the “real” band. Are The Shins still The Shins with only one founding member around? Should that affect whether or not we ultimately take to a record? Don’t Tell a Soul, The Replacement’s penultimate LP, was definitely a “Replacements” record, with all the members playing all the instruments. However, Don’t Tell a Soul is considered by many to be a failure. With that in mind, if a band with all its members suffers, why can’t a “band” without all its members flourish?
The argument here isn’t whether or not All Shook Down should be labeled a Replacements record (it shouldn’t) or a Westerberg solo album (it should). Breakups, departures, major labels, new producers, sobriety, etc. Forget them when listening to All Shook Down. The only question you need to ponder and discover the answer to is an easy one: Are the songs any good? With the exception of a few tracks, the answer overall is yes. All Shook Down is not a Replacements record, really, but it remains a really good record.
It’s not simplistic AOR, despite a steady pace several songs take. There is deception in the pleasant, radio-friendly tracks, with the girl who finds peace only in the dreams of “Merry Go Round” and the misled winding up with the phonies residing in “Happy Town”. The jangle of “Someone Take the Wheel” can’t escape “fighting again in some fucking land.” The music accompanying the melancholic lyrics is cleaner than all Replacement records not named Don’t Tell a Soul, but thanks to producer Scott Litt (responsible for R.E.M.’s Document and Automatic for the People to name a couple) they don’t neuter the album’s potency. This is a tight record, but never a constricted one.
Westerberg’s eternally cigarette-afflicted vocals still blaze, though without the decibels that dominated the band’s earliest work. Could a 20-year-old Westerberg have pulled off the aptly-titled “Sadly Beautiful” as well as his 30-year-old self does? It’s quiet and country-tinged, but more importantly it has years behind it, earning its title with a hushed marriage of strong lyrics (“From the very last time you waved and honked your horn / To a face that turned away pale and worn / Had no chance at all to let you know / You left me sadly, beautiful”) and instruments (that’s John Cale on viola).
The weaker tracks, for those with vinyl fever, appear on Side B. “When It Began” ventures a bit into Central Perk territory (with a hideous video that doesn’t help matters) and the mercifully short and too-peppy “Torture” is another song that earns its title. However, what hurts the most is “The Last”, the final song on a Replacements studio album, whatever the misgivings. While “Androgynous” is a take-off on lounge songs, “The Last” is a lounge song. Perfunctory piano dulls the blade that Westerberg manages to keep sharp throughout most of the album.
These quibbles are blips of bad weather in an otherwise clear sky. In name only, All Shook Down is the final curtain call on The Replacements’ discography. However, listen just once and you discover it’s in all actuality a solid debut for a solo Westerberg. Some reminders of his the time in that Minnesota-based band remain (the punchy guitars in “My Little Problem”), and he even corrals the old gang back together at one point (the grin-inducing, strum-along of “Attitude”). So, yeah, I’ll take a good-and-fake Replacements album over a bad-but-real one any day. I’d hold my life for it.