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'Dead Man's Pop' rewrites the history of the Replacements’ final years

The Replacements

The Replacements Album art

Conventional wisdom is a funny thing.

At the time of its release in 1989, we’re often told, Don’t Tell a Soul was critically lambasted because it didn’t sound the way a Replacements album was “supposed to.” And true enough, Spin’s review did include this unequivocal dismissal from editor Joe Levy: “It’s not just the worst Replacements record ever, it completely sucks.” The heavy digital compression and other studio trickery employed to make the band’s bid for increased commercial appeal more palatable to rock radio was an utter turn-off to a certain kind of listener.

And yet, Rolling Stone gave the album four out of five stars, with Ira Robbins closing somewhat rapturously that “the band has gone out on a new limb, with an audacious album that reclaims its valued independence by confounding audience expectations.” The Village Voice’s cantankerous critic Robert Christgau, a longtime fan, found much of the album’s power-pop-styled arrangements “corny or manipulative,” but awarded Don’t Tell a Soul a respectable B+ regardless. And though the album placed a mere 16th in the Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll—far below the fourth, second, and third slots the band’s previous three albums had occupied in their respective years—well, that was just below Dylan’s fairly well-received Oh Mercy.

Even the notorious Spin review was written as a dialogue between Levy and another critic, Christian Logan Wright, who counters that the record might well sound great to “someone who’s not a rock critic.” And it probably did— Don’t Tell a Soul sold well by the Replacements’ modest standards. But 30 years later, with the band’s slovenly rep assured, there’s more of a market for messy Mats than proto-alt-rock. History is funny that way. And so: Dead Man’s Pop, a four-disc set commemorating the awkward genesis of Don’t Tell a Soul that boasts the band’s “intended” version of that album, in the form of the original mix with producer Matt Wallace, from long-thought-lost tapes that turned up recently in guitarist Slim Dunlap’s basement.

The paradox of Don’t Tell a Soul is that this overly manicured album was born out of willful chaos. Bob Mehr’s liner notes for Dead Man’s Pop, partially adapted from his definitive Replacements chronicle Trouble Boys, divulge the gory deets of how the Mats wreaked self-indulgent, drunken havoc on producer Tony Berg at the idyllic Bearsville studios in rural New York, finally got the songs on tape in L.A. with Wallace, and then submitted to the post-production mix of Chris Lord-Alge, the man behind the despised glossy mix of the final product.

I was skeptical of the new package, and not just because the thought of re-opening the books on already over-litigated ’80s indie-rock controversies afflicts me with a deadly flu-like fatigue. It’s that my problem with Don’t Tell a Soul was never the production—Tim sounds like shit, after all, and I love that album. But Don’t Tell a Soul documents a band caught between its demand for attention and its contempt for professionalism, and that ambivalence is baked into the songwriting, with Paul Westerberg repeatedly pulling punches on an uneven batch of songs. When Westerberg sang “We’ll inherit the earth but we don’t want it,” he was lying twice over.

The tenor of Westerberg’s romanticism on Don’t Tell a Soul registers as self-conscious in all the wrong ways. The lyrics of “Achin’ to Be,” “Darlin’ One,” and “They’re Blind” feel as calculated as any teenpop ballad, as though Westerberg had imagined the median female Replacements fan with the cold precision of a market strategist and sung directly to her: She’s “kind of like an artist” who’s been “judged once and then left aside” but whose “time has come.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with that sort of aesthetic guile; in fact, there’s something of the marketing strategist to all great pop stars. But Westerberg’s appeal relied on the illusion of spontaneity—at his peak, he didn’t write love songs, he wrote need songs—and here, he too often sounds unwilling to fake it.

Nonetheless, I did want to hear what Don’t Tell a Soul sounded like before it had been scummed over with Lord-Algae, and so should you. Foregrounding eccentric elements like the piano of “I’ll Be You” and the banjo in “Talent Show,” the Wallace mixes are definitely looser and more reckless, suggesting that essential anarchic possibility of total collapse that the official product guard-railed away. This is an album that rushes past its flaws, balances out craft with spontaneity, and just sounds more present.

Dead Man’s Pop collects the recordings from the Berg sessions on its second disc; they have a tentative, demo-like feel that makes them solely of historical interest (if that). And though the band’s drunken Tom Waits late-night singalongs at Bearsville are the stuff of legend, you won’t need to hear them a second time. (I didn’t need to hear them the first.) The final two discs are more to the point: a complete recording of a 1989 Milwaukee gig, which isn’t as galvanic as the 2017 archival Mats release, For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986, but still has that spark.

But here’s the funny thing: After immersing myself inDead Man’s Pop, I went back and listened to Don’t Tell a Soul for the first time in Lord-Alge knows how long, and the mix sounded less distractingly candied than I’d remembered. Maybe the intervening years of dynamically compressed rock recordings had softened my defenses, or maybe I’d always heard these tracks through the ears of older critics.

Either way, that leaves us with a set of questions. Am I more likely to listen to this slightly more roughed-up version of these songs on Dead Man’s Pop than the originally released album? Certainly. Would critics and fans have been fonder of this version if it had been released 30 years ago. Maybe. Would more people have bought it? Unlikely. Would fewer people would have bought it? Maybe. Would that have even mattered? I’ll leave that one for you.