Suicaine Gratifaction

Paul Westerberg

Capitol Records, 1999

REVIEW BY: Candy North


It's gotta be hard being Paul Westerberg these days. Once the drunken clown and all around delinquent leader of the Replacements, his reputation proceeded him. Now into his third solo record, it hasn't been easy. Everybody wants him to be Westerberg circa 1980 something. But here's a news flash to all you Replacements fans out there: this is not a Replacements disc and if that's what you want, forget it. But if you want a great disc, go buy 100 copies and give them to all your friends. It's that good. But you have to let the past die along with the now worn-out glory of the Mats hey-day.

That said, this album is the first serious attempt by Westerberg to completely disconnect from his past while surveying the damage done by it. Self-described as clinically depressed after his last tour, Westerberg buried himself in his basement and recorded a set of songs that no longer feel self-conscious and guilty about his past nor does Westerberg even make a token musical nod to the Mats. Having accomplished this freedom, Suicaine Gratifaction is by far Westerberg's best work and the first to be completely and totally his own.

Mostly recorded by Westerberg on all vocals and instruments with studio overdubs added later, the songs on Suicaine Gratifaction are so personal, they feel almost intrusive and claustrophobic in their intimacy. The edge isn't gone from Westerberg's considerable songwriting skills, but these songs are infinitely sadder and wiser.

The record mixes a good dose of folky ballads, many with only Westerberg on piano and vocals, and a few rockers, but this isn't a record for old Replacement fans looking for another my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Tim or Let It Be. The rocker isn't completely dead and gone, but this collection of thoughtful and pensive songs is no longer painfully reminiscent of Westerberg's musical past. There is a strangely quiet confidence in these songs that also outshines his earlier solo work on 14 Songs and Eventually, which both seemed uneven and too similar to the pre-solo Westerberg. While the issues he struggles with could almost be classified as part of a mid-life crisis--love, commitment, depression, the trappings of fame--the truth is Paul has grown up and it's been an often lonely and confusing process.

Struggling with fame his entire career, the first track, "It's A Wonderful Lie", baldly addresses the truth that fame is a pose, a total sham, referring to his own youthful 15 minutes of fame. In that same vein of self-deprecation is the mid-tempo "Best Thing That Never Happened." An often overlooked asset is Westerberg's scratchy yet plaintive voice which is used with a particularly touching deftness here. Alternatively vaguely optimistic and downright dejected, his vocals are what make many of the ballads work from the soul-baring "Born For Me" to the tender "Tears Rolling Up Our Sleeves."

The thankfully sparse co-production by Don Was and Westerberg help keep this album devoid of artifice and pretense, but in its simplicity lies the trembling beauty of a Paul-turned riff or lyrical wisecrack.

I still enjoyed the rock cuts on this disc as much as the ballads. "Looking Out Forever" with its Pettyesque guitars and Was's thunderous bass is a great cut. Perhaps the strongest song , "Fugitive Kind", contemplates his evaporation from being the darling of the alternative music scene into a self-induced "fugitive" that brought Suicaine Gratifaction to fruition. There's also a nice appearance by Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner and Laura Kanini on background vocals that flesh out the track. This is one of the few songs that feels polished by a studio's touch.

My biggest complaint is too many tracks feel a little too much like demos and almost unfinished. But on "Fugitive Kind", we hear Westerberg burning on the guitar, the fierce, raw emotion returning into his playing. It makes you damn glad the guy still likes to rock n roll, if only occasionally.

I usually am not fond of my heroes mellowing. It makes me feel old and out of it. I was one of those rampant Mats fans that got stomped on by other crazy, drunk fans to watch them play in the early eighties. I thought I was part of something special watching them, something I've yet to see again in any live band, before or since. But living in the past is dangerous and often tragic. Westerberg seems to be reaching forward, however tentatively, in an effort to find his own voice and a new, more comfortable (dare we say mature???) musical style.

These songs aren't perfect, but damn wonderful. Suicaine Gratifaction feels special, as if for once we've all been invited inside to witness a very special and private moment of this gifted songwriter. Let's hope he tours--he's swearing he won't--because I think a lot of old fans might be glad to see their boy's all grown up and ready to speak the truth, just a bit more quietly.

Rating: A-

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© 1999 Candy North and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Capitol Records, and is used for informational purposes only.