From his earliest days as The Replacements’ frontman, Paul Westerberg appeared to be the product of some experiment in rock genetics gone horribly awry—a glorious amalgam of Lou Reed’s knowing sneer; David Johansen’s boozy charm; songwriting chops courtesy of Alex Chilton; a Jagger-esque disdain for any audience foolish enough to admire him; and throw in a chunky, Keith Richards-by-way-of-Bob-Mould rhythm arm for good measure. But for all that, it was Westerberg’s disarming earnestness that won him the deserving title “Most Lovable Loser of the ’80s.” Or at least he would’ve won it, if such a dubious distinction existed.
The evolution of Westerberg’s solo career has proved as dodgy a proposition as adolescence for the famously inebriated Minnesotan. His first solo attempts at recapturing the old ’Mats vitality turned up mixed results: passable but uninspired writing and performances that gave off the faint odor of professionalism. But 2002’s Stereo/Mono found Westerberg returning to form, his typical irascibility mellowed with age and perspective. And as the phonetically ambiguous title of his new release, Folker, suggests, Westerberg continues to mature gracefully into his middle years without losing sight of his middle finger. Once again recording all the instruments by himself, he has created something raw and revealing, which sounds exactly like a late-career Paul Westerberg record should. The hooks are winning as ever, with a tipsy dignity emerging from the shambolic performances that sets Westerberg well on his way to filling Joe Strummer’s recently vacated position as punk’s elder statesman. Well, it’s there if he wants it, anyway.
Folker’s striking consistency makes it one of the best records of the year, with Replacements-worthy rockers like “Gun Shy” (possibly the best Westerberg tune to arrive since Pleased to Meet Me) and “$100 Groom,” jangly winners like “When Will We Arrive” or “Any Way It’s All Right, ” the classic Westerberg-balladry of “23 Years Ago” or the goofy, moving “Looking Up in Heaven,” which may or may not be about departed Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson. But the album’s opening track “Jingle (Buy It)” reflects my thoughts exactly: “Everybody really oughta have one / Everybody really oughta buy some.”