A couple of weeks back, a friend of mine was kind enough to share some airtime with me. After participating in the reunion weekend for my old college radio station two years runnings, I decided I was up for swinging north for a sub shift from time to time. So there I found myself, one Sunday night, playing an array of songs that fit snugly on the left end of the dial. To make sure I felt my age, I devoted one set to albums that were celebrating their thirtieth anniversary, concentrating on record releases from the fall of 1987. This led to thoughts of all the albums with that distant copyright date, including the one that I routinely argue deserves inclusion on any discussion of the great rock ‘n’ roll records of all time. Thirty years since Pleased to Meet Me? Suddenly my knees hurt. I also wrote about the album during my Spectrum Culture days, but this particular piece originally went up at my former online home, as part of the “Flashback Friday” series.
For years, whenever I engaged in that favorite late-night, barroom game of debating which rock ‘n’ roll album deserved the designation “the greatest of all time,” I opted for a fairly unique choice: the sixth release from The Replacements, Pleased to Meet Me. Hell, most fans of the Minneapolis band wouldn’t even rank this as their best album, usually opting for the turning point represented by Let It Be, an effort so venerated that you can be chastised for daring to muse over its imperfections. But to me, it’s exactly what a great album should be. It’s a collection of fantastic songs, each with its own personality but also feeling like a true part of a whole. It’s perfectly of the moment, but also timeless. It’s the wondrous clatter of a great band persevering, even as they seem to be falling apart, and if that’s not the overarching story of The Replacements, I don’t know what is.
The album was recorded as a trio, the band having parted ways with guitarist Bob Stinson and not yet recruited Slim Dunlap as his, um, replacement. Being a man down doesn’t lessen the band’s fullness, nor does losing their most sonically combustible member dull their edge. In some ways, it makes the playing of the other members a little rawer, a little more reckless, as if they’re trying to fill the void. The album has some of the same “Ah, what the fuck” energy of the early effort Hootenanny, a willingness to springboard to any different sound or thought that strikes them. The primary thing that sets Pleased apart is that Paul Westerberg has fully come into his own as a songwriter. Nothing here is just tossed off, an old habit of the band’s that seemed to signal their disinterest in the very rock stardom that they couldn’t help but chase. Even the plainest song on the album has a commitment to it that is energizing.
The album begins with a one-two punch that typifies the mix of abandon and polish that will follow. The first song “I.O.U.” is a potent scorcher, a propulsive rock song that finds Westerberg’s old punk scream worn down to growls and moans that don’t undercut the anger of the song one bit. That gives way to what is simply the greatest pop song Westerberg ever conjured up, something I suspect even the legendarily cantankerous songwriter believes. Six minutes and ten seconds into the record, and The Mats have already proclaimed they can take their music anywhere they damn well please, and then they proceed to take it bigger, bolder, brasher and further afield. There’s the gloomy anguish of “The Ledge,” the bounding lovelorn cynicism of “Valentine” (“Well you wish upon a star/That turns into a plane” is a contender for the finest couplet on the record, an incredibly competitive battle), and the happily boozy charge of “Red Red Wine.”
Then it ends as it began, with a pair of songs that brilliantly encapsulate the range and skill of the band. If “Alex Chilton” is Westerberg’s greatest pop song, “Skyway” is his finest love song, an understated, wistful lament that hinges on lovely example of fate’s cruel sense of humor. And, with just a couple of lines, Westerberg also manages to evoke the harshness of Minneapolis winter, giving the song a strong sense of place. That’s followed by the splendid amble of “Can’t Hardly Wait” that captures the weary stasis of a life of “ashtray floors, dirty clothes and filthy jokes.” With its false endings interspersed throughout, it’s the sound of a band that can’t quite motivate themselves to just give up on it all. They’ve been beat up at every turn, but there’s still a chance they may be able to wring some truth out off their guitars if they just grip the neck a little tighter, a little longer. When the track finally fades out and the record is over, in some ways so is the band. There are two more proper albums with the Replacements name on them, and there’s good stuff aplenty on those releases. But this sounds like the end of The Mats, the laughing, indifferent train wrecks from the north who were the last band that mattered, but didn’t really care themselves. May all our endings rock this hard, sting this sharply and shuffle off into the murky night with such aplomb.