Happy 35th Anniversary to The Replacements’ third studio album Let It Be, originally released October 2, 1984.
“How young are you / how old am I / let’s count the rings around my eyes.” Paul Westerberg was all of 25 when he wrote “I Will Dare,” the jangle-twangy song that opens Let It Be. Then again, he has always been an old soul, a world-weary poet frustrated and trapped in the body of a reckless Midwestern janitor.
By the time Let It Be dropped on October 2, 1984, The Replacements were already a marvelous rumor, whispered by your coolest friend who had caught them at a club one night or carried around a well-worn cassette of their 1981 debut LP Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash in his backpack. They were more than the thrash of Hüsker Du, they weren’t the beatnik howl of X or the punk pastiche of the Sex Pistols before them. In another decade, perhaps, they might have just been another rock band making noise upon a stage. But they were never just any other rock band. They were The Replacements.
Call it a song in search of a heart. “I Will Dare” is love distilled to its very atoms. The casual anxiety, the palpable longing. “Call me on Thursday / if you will / Call me on Wednesday / Better still.” Westerberg understands that love is not merely the highs of a first kiss or the lows of heartbreak. It is made up of waiting and swooning, stress and giddiness, the drug of choice for hopeless romantics.
Too often, though, the Hopeless Romantics give light to just the secondary piece, forgetting that the hopelessness is what drives the most intoxicating parts of passion. As the album opens with anticipation, it closes with “Answering Machine,” a sparse and discordant song outdated in technology but timeless in its depth of feeling. “The message is very plain—I hate your answering machine,” is true whether it’s a text left unread or a voicemail unheard, these things that keep us lonely, that keep us distant when all we want to be is close by.
The thrash of Hootenanny (1983) wasn’t entirely lost in favor of the new post-punk sound heard on “We’re Coming Out” and the delightfully juvenile “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out.” But even “We’re Coming Out” settles into a bluesy snap at the bridge, a momentary break for breath before winding back up into the storm. “Gary’s Got a Boner” ties the two sounds together; the most classically punk song on the album, thrash-blues that let Bob Stinson’s guitar sneer and Westerberg’s vocals snarl. Don’t let the genderless wisdom of “Androgynous” fool you—they’re still a bunch of 20-something punks with filthy mouths and filthier minds.
You don’t discover The Replacements. The Replacements discover you. They are gifted between friends if you’ve got the right kind of friends, or their name appears in the clouds of your thoughts like a dream. You haven’t heard a note and yet you know they are the band for you. They’re a secret language, an electronic pulse that briefly disrupts your placid heart before re-settling the beat, ever so slightly changed, now awakened. That’s Chris Mars and Tommy Stinson, working for you.
Anyone who says that adolescence is the best time of your life is lying, first to you and then to themselves. Even at 25, Westerberg had not forgotten the miasma of youth, the body/mind confusion, the endless stretches of time that permeate the whole of “Sixteen Blue.” Even Stinson’s guitar work has a Quaalude-heaviness to it that you feel in the gut of your soul.
“Your age is the hardest age,” Westerberg laments. He’s been there. He knows. Yet there’s a quiet note of nostalgia there, a yearning for a time when confusion was expected and allowed by the people around you. Adulthood is as much about pretending to have your shit together as a teenager is bullshitting about sex and life and the wider world beyond the space you inhabit. Meanwhile Stinson was just 18, now legally a man, but only two years removed from the blues Westerberg sings about.
“One more chance to get it wrong,” Westerberg spits on “We’re Coming Out.” The Replacements never got it right in the traditional sense, never got the fame they were seemingly built for, self-destructive and cruel, a sound that wasn’t quite what the mainstream was looking for. There were plenty of other bands on the burgeoning alternative scene: R.E.M and U2, The Smiths and the Housemartins and Sonic Youth. But what The ‘Mats had was something wholly authentic, not as self-important as U2 or as bafflingly stream-of-consciousness as R.E.M. They weren’t simply down-to-earth, they were the dirt itself. Dirt can wreck your clothing or get in your eye, it can make flowers grow or be packed down to dance upon.
Too often earth is overlooked. Everything the band made grow—from here we would get “Kiss Me on the Bus” and “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “I’ll Be You” and “Merry Go Round” among others —would eventually be left behind, covered with broken bottles and cigarette butts, acknowledged only by the truly faithful. But just as Jesus spit into soil and rubbed it into a blind man’s eye to make him see again, The Replacements had cleared the way for a vision, even if only a few could see.
They would be ripped off. They would be copied. They would influence and they would inspire. They would be on mix tapes and gossip rags. And too often, an early album pales in comparison to what would come, or worse, is the only good one they ever produced. But Let It Be exemplifies the stretch of the spectrum. There were stronger, more mature albums to come (my personal favorite is 1987’s Pleased To Meet Me), but Let It Be firmly laid down the roots of what those albums needed to grow from.