How does a formerly scruffy punk with a wicked poison pen transition into the world of adulthood, reach out to a new audience and hang on to old fans without alienating anyone? Paul Westerberg's answer thus far has been to stick close to the centerline, half-heartedly reaching for something approximating mainstream success while keeping one foot (at times only a toe) in the gutter. The results have been mixed. While his songwriting has remained sharp, his ability to get the words across with his old fire, conviction, and humor has waned noticeably.
Released as a double album (together with Mono under the moniker Grandpaboy) Stereo is the most honest and engaging set Westerberg has released since disbanding the Replacements a decade ago. The most immediate pleasure is the unpolished, generally uncluttered production and Westerberg's ragged, off-the-cuff performance. As with the Replacements, he's at his best when he isn't even trying.
On most of Stereo the singer is accompanied by only spare instrumentation -- acoustic or mildly-amped electric guitar. By sequencing "Baby Learns to Crawl" as the opening cut, Westerberg is embracing head-on the ultimate manifestation of male maturity, fatherhood. The drums finally jump in on track 5 ("No Place for You"), but by this time, they are strangely unwelcome. Beginning with the searching "Boring Enormous" the album picks up momentum. "We May Be the Ones" is a bittersweet recollection of teen years and blurry rock stardom dreams. Between the slow burn of "Don't Want Never" and the end of the disc, things go wonderfully awry. Tape runs out, the sequence gets screwed up, song snippets emerge from nowhere and promptly disappear.
Mono is a bone to old 'Mats fans, a collection of loose rave-ups that nevertheless do a fine job of showcasing Westerberg's strengths as a writer and performer. ("Let's Not Belong" is especially good.)
It may be that rock 'n' roll is incongruent with the concerns of adulthood. We turn to this music as an escape to simpler times, when all we needed was a strong backbeat, a few chunky guitar chords and an impassioned vocal to make us feel invincible. Westerberg's liner notes from the Grandpaboy side lay it down: "This is rock 'n' roll recorded poorly, played in a hurry, with sweaty hands and unsure reason." Hey, Paul, that's all we've ever wanted.