As is the case with any impassioned faith-based group, opinion amongst ardent Replacements fans regarding what constitutes their best work is vocal and fractious. Many contend that the ‘Mats never improved upon their seminal 1984 indie swan song Let It Be, while others believe that despite slipshod production and faintly ridiculous artwork, Paul Westerberg never put together a better group of songs than on the band’s 1985 major label debut Tim. Certainly no one would be wrong by asserting either of those classics as the finest record the band ever made. But for a small minority of diehards, the patented formula of big hooks, boozy raunch, and lonely midnight-hour laments never got better than on Pleased To Meet Me, released 25 years ago.
Seemingly by design, every single year was an ordeal for the Replacements, but even by their established standard of practiced professional incompetence, the period leading up to Pleased To Meet Me was a mess. Having made the jump to the big leagues, the ‘Mats proceeded to demolish commercial ambitions with the same studied attention to detail that their contemporaries R.E.M. impeccably used to build a mass audience. Despite its slow-building brilliance, Tim received only a lukewarm commercial reception, while the band introduced themselves to mainstream America with a not-atypically addled performance on Saturday Night Live. Founding member and lead guitarist Bob Stinson was fired by Westerberg and Stinson’s own younger brother Tommy. The explanation that Bob had simply become too unreliable in his excesses seemed at once plausible and ironic. Stinson WAS unreliable — he could show up at gigs too drunk to play, or miss them altogether, leaving the roadie to play his parts. But then, it wasn’t like this was Barney Gumble stumbling into Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — Bob had always been the wildcard in a band filled with jokers. For years after Bob was dismissed, and until the band’s final rueful end, they were never much more then a 50/50 proposition in terms of a live act. Catch them on the right night and you might never see a better show. Catch them on the wrong one and it was difficult to imagine these individuals had ever played together. No one even seemed to know the songs. Intoxicants were a factor.
For many, the band would never be the same minus Bob Stinson’s sad clown act and over-the-top lead playing, which often pushed Westerberg’s soaring anthems into the ecstatic. Clearly, though, the Replacements were heading ostensibly in a more refined direction. For their follow-up, they decamped to a kind of spiritual home base: Ardent Studios in Memphis, where they would record with legendary producer Jim Dickinson, who in the previous decade had produced the three classic albums by Westerberg’s heroes Big Star. It is seems fair to say that the affinity the Replacements felt for Big Star was a product not only of musical admiration, but a sense of living through the same thing trajectory. It had begun to seem that their surpassingly great music would never quite be the fashion of the time, and that the delicate, diffident nature of the personalities involved might be the final blow to any chance of being genuine hit makers.
Westerberg’s evident ambivalence towards being a capital R Rock Star was always at odds with a deep desire for a mass audience and an understandable envy toward certain followers who managed to achieve it. He once memorably termed the Mats “the little engine that could, but didn’t fucking feel like it.” But great as they were, they did feel like it and they really couldn’t. That sense of chip-on-your-shoulder frustration and looming failure hovers all over the tough and lean 34 minutes of Pleased To Meet Me.
The Stonesy opener “IOU,” which Rolling Stone insightfully referred to as “listening to Exile On Main Street on 78,” throws down the gauntlet, with Westerberg underscoring the band’s unwillingness to play industry games. Two things are clear from the start: Dickinson, an old hand on the Memphis soul scene who had played the piano on the Stones “Wild Horses,” was the perfect choice to produce. He got the band completely and seemed to know intuitively how to split the difference between showcasing songcraft and anarchy. Second, Bob Stinson or no, The Replacements were not about to turn into Toad The Wet Sprocket. With Westerberg manning all the guitars, things sounded plenty noisy and urgent, with maybe a touch fewer up the neck hammer-on freak outs.
On the second track Westerberg brings it all back home and produces one of his enduring classics. It is important to note the context in which the track “Alex Chilton” was released — 25 years ago, the now-legendary power pop icon was far from the front of the music world’s consciousness. Big Star records were in print spottily if at all, and Chilton’s work as a solo artist had been peculiar, sometimes amazing, and always ignored. At the time he was a largely anonymous figure working day jobs and barely involved with the industry. On the tribute to his hero Westerberg posits an alternative reality where Big Star had achieved the fame they deserved and “children by the millions wait for Alex Chilton to come around.” In between Westerberg seems to be describing the coolest man who ever picked up a guitar. Great lines and reference points fall like rain: “feeling like a hundred bucks,” “checking his stash by the trash at St. Marks Place,” and the grimly humorous observation: “if he died in Memphis, that’d be cool.” That Westerberg manages to wrap this sentiment around the kind of tricky and unpredictable but remarkably catchy progression, which would have made Chilton himself proud, underscores the touching brilliance of this meta-achievement.
The third track, “I Don’t Know” is a droll back-and-forth between Westerberg and band that became a live favorite. “Nightclub Jitters” is a strange but affecting bit of faux vocal jazz, Westerberg as early Tom Waits, crooning about having a drink (or four) in order to overcome the anxiety of heading out on the town, or perhaps onto the stage. On the final song of side one, he delivers perhaps his finest, most harrowing and most sympathetic look into the mind of a troubled teen, “The Ledge.” Brilliantly told from the point of view of a suicidal young man perched on a high precipice, the song describes the things he sees just before taking the fatal plunge.
Following that disquieting first-half finale, a bit of palate-cleansing is needed, and the ‘Mats promptly fill the order with one of their finest ever pop tunes, “Never Mind.” Featuring a great, jangly guitar line, and an winsome opening verse, this is one of a handful of songs in the band’s catalog that rightfully could have been a chart topper, and was arguably a better R.E.M. song than anything that would appear on R.E.M.’s major-label breakthrough, Green, the following year. (Adding insult to injury, the title was borrowed by another band of would-be contenders for their major label debut in 1991.) “Valentine” is another pure pop gem that keeps the momentum charging forward. At this point, Westerberg seems almost physiologically incapable of opening his mouth without something clever and memorable escaping it (“If you were a pill/I’d take a handful at my will”).
If Pleased To Meet Me has a bad or terrible song, it is pretty hard to argue that it is not “Shooting Dirty Pool,” which follows in the tradition of similar throwaways from previous albums like “Dose Of Thunder” and “Gary’s Got A Boner.” The Replacements’ relationship to ’70s riff rock was always a clear part of the profile. This was a band who had earnestly (and brilliantly) covered the Kiss chestnut “Black Diamond” and felt the need to credit Ted Nugent as a co-writer on “Gary’s Got A Boner,” because, well, it was just ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ with different lyrics. The odd thing about “Shooting Dirty Pool” is that it was long believed that the main impetus for these throwaways was to give Bob Stinson a showcase to go apeshit bonkers on guitar, thus making them a kind of in-joke amongst fans and a head-scratcher to the uninitiated. In fact, with Bob out of the band, every Replacements record continued to feature a song or two of just this kind, suggesting that maybe Westerberg liked Nugent a little more then he was prepared to admit. Anyway, “Shooting Dirty Pool” is certainly on a short list of the worst songs they ever released, and somehow is still largely beloved.
Bob may have been out of the band, but unsurprisingly, this did not put an end to the drinking. Instead the available evidence appears to suggest that if anything, things became steadily more debauched. In a 2002 interview with Magnet, Westerberg recalls being asked by Ardent studio owner John Fry, how exactly did the band manage to get vomit on the ceiling? Thus, the furious and catchy “Red, Red Wine,” a cheerful tribute to ceaseless imbibing, seems like the closest thing to an actual play-by-play from the sessions. It is an inspired piece of Stonesy bravado, which encapsulates much of the ‘Mats’ crooked magnetism: It’s a delightful ride, and you know it won’t end well.
Westerberg had two more masterpieces in him to close the show. Again channeling his idol Chilton, the stunning “Skyway” is two minutes of wry, yearning melancholia every bit the equal of Big Star’s greatest ballads. Played on a 12-string guitar, and beautifully sung, “Skyway” relays a truly heartbreaking tale of two lovers failing to meet up on the frozen streets of a Minneapolis winter. This is Westerberg close to his absolute peak: a master class of wit, economy and sentiment — punk rock’s very own “Simple Twist Of Fate.”
One more track, one last chance for that elusive hit. Featuring an impossibly memorable riff, a sweeping melody and a perfect chorus “Can’t Hardly Wait” was as catchy and clever a song as the band ever recorded, one that puts a final exclamation point on the album’s trailing-in-the-bottom-of-the ninth feel. Everything here is great, from Westerberg’s opening gambit “write you a letter tomorrow/tonight I can’t hold a pen” to the startling appearance of the famous Memphis Horns in the final big buildup. It is as heart-swelling and addictive as rock ‘n’ roll gets, and by final fadeout it is nearly impossible to imagine it not topping the pops from Albuquerque to Zanzibar. In the summer of 1987, “Can’t Hardly Wait” was released as the first single from Pleased To Meet Me. It failed to chart. Alex Chilton guested on guitar.