Second Look: The Replacements – Tim

Tim is an oddity of an album. Sandwiched between The Replacements’ magnum opus (Let It Be) and their first album with pronounced commercial aspirations (Pleased To Meet Me), it lacks both the rowdiness of the old Mats and the polished approach of the new Mats. It’s the first major label album from a band that helped define the alternative rock scene. It’s the last album to feature founding member Bob Stinson’s guitar playing, before he was booted from the band. It has throwaway tracks like “Lay It Down Clown” and “Dose Of Thunder,” but it also has by far the best closing trio of any Replacements album. Perhaps it’s the irony of things like these though, that make it the definitive Replacements release.

In 1984, The Mats were in a situation that was becoming increasingly common for indie bands at the time: they’d reached the point where they were too big for their label. So they signed to a major (Sire Records), and while it was the beginning of the end for The Mats, their descent into oblivion was more of a one-winged spiral than a sharp plummet, and with many great moments along the way. The first cog to come loose was founding member Bob Stinson, as the band felt that they needed to make adjustments, and Bob’s simplified punk ethos conflicted with Paul Westerberg’s maturing songwriting. But before Bob’s departure, we got Tim, in all its ragged glory.

The album opens with the charming but largely unintelligible “Hold My Life.” A closer listen to the lyrics reveals impending feelings of paranoia at the thought of growing up; a surprising admission that was only the first sign of Westerberg’s ongoing journey to maturity. It’s the antithesis to Let It Be‘s “I Will Dare” in that instead of taking reckless chances, The Mats are now calling for a safety net. But what really makes it special is how the instrumentation and Westerberg’s vocal delivery retain the band’s youthful edge, in contrast to the song’s subject matter.

“I’ll Buy” is a bit of a regression when pitted against “Hold My Life,” as it sees Westerberg going back to his “I Will Dare” mentality, telling his girlfriend in the chorus “Everything you say, dear/ I’ll buy, buy, buy, buy, buy.” Only his delivery is a bit tongue-in-cheek, especially during lines like “Give my regards to Broadway/ Tell ’em I don’t really care,” suggesting that Westerberg in fact no longer believes in the fleeting, reckless lifestyle that so heavily influenced the band’s earlier work. “Kiss Me On The Bus” is perhaps the most lighthearted song on Tim, expressing the unparalleled youthful sentiment of not being able to be with a crush. “Your tongue, your transfer/ Your hand, your answer” ranks among the best couplets Westerberg has ever penned, and the Stinson solo that leads into the song’s final chorus is a prime example of how The Mats helped bring guitar solos back into the underground repertoire.

But then, hitting cleanup is “Dose Of Thunder,” the first trough in Tim‘s cycle. It’s sloppy, reckless, and snotty in a way that hearkens back to the band’s Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash days, but is frustrating to hear on Tim just because the surrounding songs are so much better and more complex. The best thing you can say about it is that it exemplifies The Mats’ astounding ability to crash and burn right after blowing everyone’s socks off; one of the defining characteristics of the band. Attribute it to being the only song on Tim that wasn’t written solely by Westerberg (Chris Mars and Tommy Stinson also share credit). “Waitress In The Sky” is a whimsical track that targets, of all things, flight attendants for their high-horsed behavior. Over a shuffling beat, Westerberg chides “Struttin’ up the aisle/ Big deal, you get to fly/ You ain’t nothing but a waitress in the sky” half-jokingly. It’s easily the most nonsensical and random song on Tim in terms of subject matter, but because of its instant appeal and sheer catchiness, it’s a welcome detour from the heavier sentiments found elsewhere on the album.

“Swingin Party” closes Side One and is Tim‘s bona fide ballad, à la Let It Be‘s “Sixteen Blue.” If “Hold My Life” was Westerberg’s call for help so that he doesn’t fall over the edge, “Swingin Party” finds him after he’s gone over and is about to pay the price. The price, of course, being a trip to the “Swinging party down the line,” or to state it explicitly, Westerberg’s hanging.

Opening Side Two with a blast is “Bastards Of Young,” Tim‘s lead single and, by default, rallying call. This is the song they bombed their SNL performance with, and even without seeing the footage, it’s not hard to imagine it: opening with a raw, throaty, wordless cry from Westerberg and centering around the proclamation “We are the sons of no one,” “Bastards Of Young,” in retrospect, could very well be seen as The Mats’ last true youth anthem. It also features the lines “The ones who love us best/ Are the ones we’ll lay to rest/ And visit their graves on holidays at best/ The ones who love us least/ Are the ones we’ll die to please/ If it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand them,” which add up to a disturbingly true notion about social nature that is notable in its own right.

Right after “Bastards Of Young” though, almost as if to remind us of who we’re dealing with, is “Lay It Down Clown.” As was the case with “Dose Of Thunder,” “Lay It Down Clown” hearkens back to the band’s early style, but doesn’t work because their early style is so inferior to what they’re doing elsewhere on the album. It seems unfair to dismiss these two dud songs as such when Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash is, for what it is, actually a good album, but what it is (simplistic garage punk) doesn’t quite stack up against the more developed songwriter that began to bloom within Paul Westerberg on Hootenanny and flowered throughout Let It Be, Tim, and Pleased To Meet Me.

After “Lay It Down Clown,” prospects seem low for Tim living up to Let It Be‘s status as an instant classic. But then The Mats went and redefined how good they were with (dare I say it) one of the greatest closing trios in alt-rock history. It is these three songs, more than anything else they ever did, that define their legacy. It starts with “Left Of The Dial,” a song that perfects the loud-soft-loud dynamic that Dinosaur Jr. and several waves of shoegaze artists would lay claim to as their signature just a few years later. The lyrics are written as a love letter to a girl in another band, and the result is an indie anthem on par with the best of ’em.

“Little Mascara” is, above all else, Tim‘s heartbreaker. At this point in his career, Westerberg has all but perfected that wounded stray yowl that was part of his trademark, but it’s utilized here better than anywhere else. Topping it off is one of Bob Stinson’s most affecting solos, and when paired with lines like “Don’t you worry if you wonder why he ran” and the chorus of “All you’re ever losing is/ A little mascara/ That you cry,” “Little Mascara” becomes not just a highlight of Tim but of The Replacements’ career.

Finally, the last song on Tim is also the most downtrodden: “Here Comes A Regular.” As early as 1981 b-side “If Only You Were Lonely,” it was clear that Paul Westerberg was capable of dealing with a wider range of emotions than the average punk frontman, but “Here Comes A Regular” is a step up even for him, set over punctuated acoustic guitar chords and even featuring strings in the outro (gasp!). It’s not only the longest song The Mats put to tape but also the barest; not in production, but rather delivery, as Westerberg is able to harness his band’s status as “regulars” themselves for a five-minute comedown from the catharsis of “Little Mascara”‘s lyrics. The lyrics to “Here Comes A Regular” itself use a metaphor about bars to address everyone’s innate desire to be special, to have someone, to make the most of themselves; just to have ambition period, while the every-man Westerberg is alone as the only (ironic) regular. For a band whose appeal is largely based on their status as “regulars” in both senses of the word (as everyday people and as bar regulars), it’s a fitting end to the album.

Tim is not the best Replacements album. “Dose of Thunder” and “Lay It Down Clown” quickly put an end to any argument there. But while it may not be their best, it is the Replacements album. It was the last album where Paul Westerberg was in firm control of the band, enacting his will, before the band fell apart around him. It also bridges the gap between two distinct periods of the band and is able to synthesize elements of the two with a unique sound that no one has been able to replicate since. The Replacements are a hard band to pin down, as far as what made them really good goes; I’ve done my best to express it here, but they’re a band whose ability to hit home truly needs to be heard to be understood. And for that purpose, there is no better album than Tim.