Paul Westerberg: Up to His Old Tricks Again
Earlier this week, when Paste received unexpected word of this brand-new, independent, web-only release from Paul Westerberg, we were spun into an intense round of e-mail exchanges about what this kind of approach means, both artistically and for the music industry. As our writer Brent Dey goes on to explain below, Westerberg just finished the record last week, and it’s a gloriously on-the-fly mish-mash of a mix—completely sloppy, but as immediate as it gets. We got it right away, and at only $0.49 for the whole album. Amazon was the only retailer that was OK with charging such a low price, so that’s who Westerberg and his manager decided to go with. That’s right: Westerberg felt a fair price for the album was $0.01 per recorded minute.
Another important detail is that Westerberg put the record out as one giant MP3. Beautiful: In the age of short attention spans and download singles, make it so we pretty much have to listen to the entire album as one piece. Of course, Westerberg is moving forward and backward here—not just throwing a life preserver to the album as an art form, but getting in on the sound-collage/mash-up game (a la Girl Talk, though less frantic and with mostly his own songs). 49:00 weaves in and out of the tunes—we get fragments and bits and pieces in between whole, more finished ideas, and wonder whether that’s all Westerberg had or if there’s some amazing tune of which we’ll only ever hear the third chorus. It’s a daring move, one that points at the fragmentation we’re experiencing in our culture. Or maybe Westerberg is just making fun of sampling and mash-ups; it’s hard to say. At points, he even integrates five-second snippets of himself covering songs such as The Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye” and Elton John’s “Rocketman,” and sometimes he has two tracks playing simultaneously, one in each speaker channel, or his vocals completely washed-out and buried, or his little boy singing along to a sea of punk-rock feedback. It’s not Metal Machine Music, but it’s one of the most interesting records I’ve heard yet this year.
Most importantly, in the age of click tracks, computer-grid recording, split-second ProTools punch-ins and auto-tune, this release shines a spotlight on the absurdity of the whole modern process of making a record: the frantic striving for perfection (who needs it?!), the painful attention to detail, the endless hours of mixing and mastering that suck all the mojo out of the music. I can't help but think while listening to 49:00, “Wow, if you have a cool song, it doesn’t matter what the recording is like, it doesn’t matter if the song has a botched beginning or ending, or if it cuts out for a minute in the middle.” Shit, sometimes, it even makes for a more satisfying listen, because it feels more human and imperfect, which is something real; something I can relate to. And isn’t that as much as we can ask from a piece of art?
Below, Paste writer Brent Dey, inspired by Westerberg’s approach to 49:00, decided to write a short essay on his initial experience with the record, limiting himself to 499 words, all penned in 49 minutes, with no going back to revise after that. I was given 49 seconds to edit the piece, which got me about as far as the third paragraph. That should explain the random letter italicized at the bottom, and any other mistakes you might find. But you know what? We think you’ll still get the idea.
I just opened my e-mail and found out that Paul Westerberg just released a new album as a .49 cent download. I mean, literally. He handed in his final mixes last Monday, sent it to his manager on Tuesday and it was released this weekend. It’s Monday today, so the final mix on some of these tracks is less than a week old.
This kind of unprecedented web gimmickry hasn’t been seen since Radiohead released In Rainbows. But more than pointing to the future of the Web’s role in glorious rock and roll, I think it hails to the glory of rock’s past. After all, rock was never meant to be anything more than an urgent, primal response to a groove that we all have in the heart. And that’s why I find this record so refreshing. It’s a sloppy, beer-soaked “fuck you”—the kind we used to expect from Westerberg when he was making great albums like Let it Be and Pleased to Meet Me with his glorious band, The Replacements. I’ve always said that if the ‘Mats had continued making records with that same level of passion they would have been as big as U2 or R.E.M.
But they didn’t. They released the slickly saccharine Don’t Tell a Soul and then they released All Shook Down. And Westerberg continued in that vein most of his early solo career, putting chords behind made-for-chick-flick songs like “Dyslexic Heart” until we didn’t bother picking up his records anymore. And in the meantime, U2 and R.E.M. started making safe, ultra slick records too. And the very artists we thought would be the standard bearers of the passion that we though was ours as a generation went down the same bland road taken by Chicago and Paul McCartney and Fleetwood Mac and Pizza Hut and Saturday Night Live and Olive Garden and The Rolling Stones. They grew up, played it safe and got boring.
But it’s easy to cast stones. Which is why, when I opened the e-mail and promptly paid my .49 cents so I could download the album, I got the wild idea - what if I would do the same as Westerberg? Write something and release it, warts and all? What if I would give myself 49 minutes to write 499 words about this record without the benefit of going back and editing it later? Luckily, I’m the kind of writer that edits as I go, but still with three minutes to go, I see a lot of things I wish I had time to go back and change. I mean, how many times do I use the word ‘glorious’?
So there it is. The primal scream from Paul Westerberg does more than recapture my youthful respect for him. It reclaims my respect for the glory of rock and roll. And it’s a challenge to everyone who has quit taking chances in the studio to quit hiding behind a mixing counsel and make music that bleeds again.
So. With 550 words written, I’m over my limit with a lot left to say. I over delivered in words and under-delivered in content. But so what? Westerberg said his record was going to be 49 minutes long, and according to my iPod, it clocks in at 43 minutes and 55 seconds. You could say that by keeping things short, he gave us exactly what we needed.