Paul Westerberg’s Suicaine Gratifaction at 20
“What Am I doing/I ain’t in my youth/I’m past my prime…The truth is overrated/It’s a wonderful lie…”
With those words, former Replacement mainstay Paul Westerberg jumpstarted the inexplicably named Suicaine Gratification, the third album of a solo career that had been spawned a mere five years before. It was a sharp detour from any music he had previously made, affirming the extra gravitas implied in those lyrics which accompanied opening track “It’s a Wonderful Lie.”
As godfathers of the Minneapolis punk scene, the Replacements had slowly evolved from brash upstarts with an insurgent sensibility and three chord cacophony to… well, brash upstarts with an insurgent sensibility and three chord well crafted songs. The transition was due in great part to singer, guitarist, and songwriter Westerberg’s own adroit combination of swagger and savvy, not to mention his affection for the classic rock bands like the Faces and the Stones which managed to purvey attitude with ability.
Indeed, Westerberg always possessed a certain bravado, even early on. Legend has it that he was walking home from work one day when he heard a band practicing in a basement while attempting their version of the Yes classic “Roundabout.” The group in question included future Replacements Tommy Stinson, Bob Stinson and Chris Mars. For his part, Westerberg was so duly impressed he managed to convince their singer that he was about to be ousted, conveniently leaving room for Westerberg to slip in and take his place.
Although All Shook Down, the band’s presumptive swan song was essentially Westerberg’s own record entirely, he didn’t venture out on his own entirely until he placed two songs on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film Singles. It would be another two years until the release of his first true solo album, 14 Songs and another two years after that until his sophomore set Eventually, followed.
Nevertheless, when it appeared three years later, Suicaine Gratification marked the emergence of a decidedly introspective and reflective mindset for the onetime turbulent cheerleader of punkish persuasion. The aforementioned “It’s a Wonderful Lie,” with its rustic country noir, the piano ballads “Bookmark” and “Self-Defense” and the suitably sobering “Born for Me,” featuring then-emerging folk chanteuse Shawn Colvin on backing vocals, inferred a marked maturity in both thought and process, one that allowed Westerberg to bask in reflection and reserve. He could still rock decidedly — songs such as “Best Thing That Never Happened,” “Lookin’ Out Forever,” “Whatever Makes You Happy,” and “Final Hurrah” proved that point decidedly, but now he seemed to be making music with less abandon and far more focus. Having Don Was positioned at the helm likely had something to do with that stance, but clearly Westerberg was aiming to put more effort and nuance into his songwriting, making music, even while making music bearing a similarly sturdy undertow.
So too, the players involved had a lot to do with Westerberg’s revival of sorts. Veteran drummer Jim Keltner, Heartbreaker keyboard ace Benmont Tench, pedal steel player Greg Leisz and occasional cello and French horn players added a depth and sheen that made Suicaine Gratification an exceptional effort overall.
“Talking to myself again, my sentences ramble at great length,” Westerberg sings on the suitably stoic “Sunrise Always Listens.” “I’m the only guy listening.”
He needn’t have worried. As many people learn once they age, requiring people to lean and listen is an effective way to capture attention as well.