Review Summary: The Replacements in their prime; a landmark album in American alternative rock
My infatuation with The Replacements started a decade ago by a stroke of good luck. I found a copy of 'Tim' in the bargain bin and, being familiar with them in name only but having heard good things (or rather 'read' good things; no one I actually knew talked about The Replacements), I bought it. Worst case scenario it would be just another addition to my growing CD collection. As the opening drums of ‘Hold My Life’ blasted through my speakers my first impressions were ‘this is definitely from the 80s', and then 'damn, this sounds really good'. "Tim" would find its way into my regular rotation over the next few years, along with "Let It Be" and their single "Alex Chilton" (it took me years to realize how good "Please to Meet Me" as an album actually was). It wasn't until a few years later however, in my early twenties, that The Replacements graduated into the close-knit inner circle of 'my bands' (an exclusive club featuring The Clash, Against Me!, Built to Spill and Modest Mouse). Their songs ceased to be merely songs that I listened to, but rather songs that listened to me, so to speak. I exhausted the record like I did few others. It was during a personal rough patch that the songs of Tim became life-affirming stuff, lyric after lyric repeatedly punching me in the gut while at the same time smacking me in the face urging me to wake up.
But moving away from that personal angle and onto the music, which is undoubtedly more interesting, “Tim” marks The Replacements’ major label debut. Along with their previous LP "Let it Be", it showcases the ‘Mats in peak form, firing on all cylinders. From the snarling, straight-shooting punk of their debut, followed by their brief flirtation with hardcore (“Stink EP”)', and the eclectic but wonderful mess of “Hootenany”, The Replacements found a sweet spot in the mid-eighties where they managed to encompass everything that worked for them previously and enhanced it. Paul Westerberg's strengths as a songwriter were evident from the onset but now he was really hitting his stride, his words taking on a weariness and introspection that had previously only been hinted at. The Mats’ had this ‘it’ factor that made them utterly captivating; they were a special sort of band people became very passionate over (their notorious live performances were surely a part of this equation), yet it still felt like they were on the outside looking in.
While many consider “Let it Be” their finest (half) hour, for my money it’s “Tim” (there is no wrong answer here). Though not as diverse as its predecessor and a little more serious, it still retained enough of their signature attitude and carelessness, even if some of the humour was stifled in the process. Tim would be their most accessible record to date, yet it suffers none of the pitfalls their sound would later succumb to as they adopted a slick, radio-ready sound (see: 1989's 'Don't Tell a Soul'. Actually, don’t). Though the tempos are generally slower and the sound tamer (in the context of their previous records), these are some of the best songs The Replacements’ have ever recorded, and among the finest in the American alternative rock cannon. As to the production itself, the band wasn’t exactly thrilled with Tommy Erdelyi’s (AKA Tommy Ramone) work here; Tommy Stinson complained you couldn’t hear his bass and the there is an almost tinny sound to it (which Paul and Tommy blamed on Erdelyi’s failing hearing), but thankfully the songs were too damn good to let these issues be serious detractors.
Of the eleven songs on Tim not one is disposable, even if seventeen year old me tended to skip 'Lay it Down Clown' or ‘Dose of Thunder’. They’re straightforward rockers lacking the depth many here possess , and were probably included as a means to give guitarist Bob Stinson something to do and keep him appeased (he had been growing increasingly distant from the band and their new direction, but that’s a whole other story). If "Tim" is the definitive Replacements record than ‘Bastards of Young’ is their defining song. A heartfelt, fist-pumping anthem that serves both as a lamentation of the band's own struggles with success and missed opportunities but more universally as an ode to a disenfranchised youth stumbling into adulthood, unsure and directionless, certain only of the things they don't want. 'Swingin Party' is thematically similar but more melancholic, with Paul singing "If being afraid is a crime we hang side by side" and "If being alone is a crime I'm serving forever". 'Kiss Me on the Bus' is a catchy, nostalgic number about innocence and young love, while 'Left of the Dial' is at once Paul's tribute to college radio but more specifically a love letter to Let’s Active singer/guitarist Lynn Blakey and how the touring life caused her and Paul to drift apart. ‘Waitress in the Sky’ is a folkier one, an inside joke pertaining to Paul’s flight attendant sister, and gives the record a humorous boost. "Tim" is book-ended by two of The Replacements’ best; despite being sort of all over the place, ‘Hold My Life’s’ aimlessness and incoherence is oddly fitting, and the chorus of “Hold my life until I’m ready to use it” stands out as one of Westerberg’s most memorable. “Here Comes a Regular”, with just Paul and an acoustic guitar (with a touch of piano added later), closes the album on a gut-wrenching note. A haunting song that sees regret and frustration settle into apathy, alcoholism and depression, it is also a precursor to the more ballad-driven songs and softer direction Paul would gradually steer The Replacements in, culminating in 1990’s “All Shook Down”.
There’s an essence about the record though which goes beyond analysis and which I find difficult to define but am magnetically drawn to, and year after year it doesn't seem to wear off. It’s this elusive quality of music that I find so fascinating, and the fact that I can’t describe it seems appropriate. I suppose this record just ticks all the boxes of qualities I look for in music (or rather realize afterwards I was looking for). The lyrics hit on a personal level, there’s an emotional weight to it yet doesn't take itself too seriously. It’s rockin’ and carefree at times yet somber and restrained at others. I can conclude this review by making some more hyperbolic claims like “Tim is one of the best albums of the 1980s”, or “Tim is one of the best alternative rock albums ever” and I can say those things and sincerely mean them with my utmost conviction, but I will not attempt to justify (successfully, at least) a perfect rating, as I don’t believe any record is perfect unless it becomes so on a personal level. That’s not to say personal favourite records cannot be reviewed objectively, it’s just never been my forte. But this one gets full marks from me, for whatever that’s worth.