For a band so insistent on defying any and all principles of behavior, even (or perhaps especially) when it meant sabotaging their own success, it’s perfectly fitting that the Replacements’ best and most quintessential album bears a title so openly flippant in its disregard for the popular music establishment. And while inspiration for that title likely stopped at a simple gesture of blasphemy, there is also an irony to Let It Be. Where Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be” finds a peaceful release in the complacent “wisdom” of a visiting “Mother Mary,” Paul Westerberg and co. express the opposite sentiment here: pubescent agitation, sexual confusion, a stubborn refusal to merely let anything be. They would continue churning out great records for the rest of the decade, but Let It Be feels like their finest moment, perfectly balanced between the bratty punk energy of their youth and the melody-rich songwriting of their later years.
The Replacements’ earlier, more strictly punk records are defined not just by fast tempos and abrasive production, but also by a distinctively brash sense of humor. Let It Be is a clear effort to produce something more substantial, but at the same time, the band do this while maintaining their playful spirit. Despite this relative refinement and Westerberg’s growing interest in Big Star-inspired power pop, it’s abundantly clear that Let It Be is no sell-out record. With that concern in mind, though, the fact that there’s a Kiss cover here first registers as a provocation — even a shot at the band’s sneering, anti-commercial punk fanbase, just in case they hadn’t already alienated enough listeners –– until you actually hear it. Their take on “Black Diamond” rips harder than Kiss ever could, and its squealing guitars and breakneck speed imbue the song with an anguish hardly glimpsed in its original incarnation. It somehow doesn’t register as out of place, even when following the disarmingly sweet piano ballad “Androgynous,” perhaps the most emotionally rich track on the album.
[The Replacements] would continue churning out great records for the rest of the decade, but Let It Be feels like their finest moment, perfectly balanced between the bratty punk energy of their youth and the melody-rich songwriting of their later years.
Let It Be is post-punk in the sense that these punks are beginning to grow up; though it’s the album’s primary thematic concern, adolescence is decidedly in the rearview. To wit, the chorus of “Sixteen Blue”: “Your age is the hardest age / Everything drags and drags.” It’s easy to be moved by Westberg’s earnest sensitivity, and it’s important, too, to locate his perspective: his use of second-person is notable, as if he’s comforting a younger sibling, or even reaching out to a younger version of himself. The point being that he’s not writing as a sixteen year-old — he’s writing to one. Even something like “Gary’s Got a Boner,” a raucous ode to being a horny teenager, comes from a place of relative remove. Westerberg understands the desperation to “fuck Madonna,” but he also recognizes the inexperienced juvenilia of these fantasies –– though he spurs young Gary on anyway. “Unsatisfied” is the record’s anthemic centerpiece, and it feels like a spiritual companion to “Sixteen Blue,” both in its delicate, jangly guitar work and in how it speaks to that same sense of jaded, teenage ennui. “I’m so, I’m so / Unsatisfied,” Westerberg wails, the torment palpable in his voice. Here he does seem to have taken on a younger POV — and in that sense, the song is in conversation with “Sixteen Blue.” The latter first registers as an empathetic response to a familiar pain, but “Unsatisfied” suggests something darker: Westerberg’s “unsatisfaction” bleeding beyond the bounds of adolescence.
Though it may sound counterintuitive, Let It Be is an album whose resonance only deepens with time and age; to many an agitated teen it’s been a balm, an affirmation that someone else out there understands. But one only really grasps its full power in adulthood. To reflect on that “hardest age,” along with the band, is to recognize one’s own growth — but it’s also to be confronted with the ways in which many of those feelings still persist. On some level, a 24-year-old Paul Westerberg may have thought that he was passed the hormonal pubescence that he’s singing about. If “Unsatisfied” isn’t enough to prove otherwise, a certain standout track from 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul might: five years later, he was still “Achin’ To Be.” Do we ever really outgrow that?
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.