It was, I suppose, inevitable that this legendarily ragged, don’t-give-a-crap band would eventually update its post-punk image, one that almost sunk the Replacements — and eventually led to the, well, replacement of guitarist Bob Stinson with Slim Dunlap.
Paying to see a band — no matter their charming, raw genius on songs like “Shutup,” “Dope Smokin’ Moron,” “Bastards of Young” and “Shiftless When Idle” — only to find them boozy, then violently ill on stage will lose its hipster edge as the guys get older.
Happily, lead screamer/guitarist Paul Westerberg, by the time Don’t Tell A Soul debuted, was beginning to plumb a new depth to his songwriting. Unhappily, as the band moved on from trying to fashion art out of chaos, it imploded.
Even so, this record helped the Replacements (formed in 1979 in Minneapolis, Minn., with bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars) earn the title of “Last, Best Band of the 1980s” from Musician magazine. “I’ll Be You” — No. 1, back then, on the Modern Rock charts and played in heavy rotation on MTV — was something akin to a previous college-radio favorite “Can’t Hardly Wait,” one that marked a turning point for the band.
Don’t Tell A Soul, by remaining in that vein, establishes a new band aesthetic: Where Westerberg was once reckless and outspoken, he now allows for still more moments of frank introspection. It was clear even then (see: “Achin’ To Be”) that he aimed now to be thought of as not just a rock star, but as a writer.
The center, then, of the Replacements — an idea that could never abide such quiet thoughts — could not possibly hold.
Where there was once jagged guitar, we find acoustics, sweet vocal harmonies, even keyboards. “Talent Show” and “Rock and Roll Ghost,” subdued by the go-go standards of this band, provide a haunting look into the aftermath of the road’s perhaps inevitable debauchery. “Darlin’ One” is a highlight: Where a contemporary “college” band like R.E.M. might have provided a slicked-up hoot, the Replacements growl with devastating, minor-key depth.
Not to say the band has pulled up its roots entirely: “Anywhere Is Better Than Here,” the jolting opener on what we used to call Side 2, and “I Won’t” are frisky, straight-ahead, if sloppy, rock numbers in the vein of that legendary cassette-only live tape released by TwinTone.
These moments, however, are few. It’s clear that there is not much left here for Westerberg. This is the perhaps long hoped-for power-pop gem from the Replacements. But in accomplishing that, the group moved irretrievably into the mainstream — and they were always anything but that. This success was really the Replacements’ death knell, though they would later become a key influence for bands like Goo Goo Dolls, Green Day and Pavement.
As Westerberg sings “I could purge my soul, perhaps, for the imminent collapse” during “I’ll Be You”, we’re reminded that the band only recorded one more album (1990′s “All Shook Down,” really a Westerberg solo release) — and that Stinson would be dead by the midpoint of the next decade from a drug overdose.