On the Record: The Replacements – Don’t Tell a Soul

When The Replacement jumped to Sire with the release of Tim in 1985, they had the hopes and critical praise to make them superstars, though it never materialized. 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me was met with the same hope, yet success never found the band. So for their third major label outing, the band pulled out all the stops. On first listen, 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul is far cry from the band that released classic albums like Tim or Let it Be. Gone is the sharp and often times silly sense of humour. Gone are the sloppy punk outbursts like “Tommy Get’s His Tonsils Out.” Don’t Tell a Soul is sharply crafted, polished, and the sound of a band desperately trying to sell out.

Seeing other college rock acts like R.E.M. find success in the mainstream, coupled with the band members’ sobriety led to Don’t Tell a Soul‘s creation. This is college rock at its most calculated and commercial, but coming from one of the genre’s pioneers, it still feels a little more authentic. Taking the place of the ragged punk of earlier albums, there’s a new-found sense of maturity in Paul Westerberg’s songwriting (and for better or worse points toward his solo material). Tracks like “Talent Show,” “Asking Me Lies,” and “We’ll Inherit the Earth” show an awareness – be it of self, political, or environmental – previously not seen.

But make no mistake, the album sounds forced, though it it works the majority of the time. Driven by the want – no, sheer need – for success finds the band pushing harder to develop fully realized songs than ever before. In lieu of tossed-off covers like Kiss’ “Black Diamond” from Let it Be, there’s the delicate, almost waltz-like ballad “They’re Blind,” one of the album’s strongest tracks. You can hear the desperation and sadness in Westerberg’s voice on “Anywhere’s Better Than Here,” “I’ll Be You,” and “Darlin’ One,” as if the album is the band’s last chance at some semblance of success. Indeed, Don’t Tell a Soul was the last full-band effort; 1990’s All Shook Down was recorded primarily by Westerberg and studio musicians, and is The Replacements in name only.

Although, the album is not entirely successful. Songs like “Back to Back” and “I Won’t” are pretty weak and fairly unmemorable. Yet, the album marks an important chapter in the band’s history that would eventually lead to the band’s demise. It may still divide critics and fans 20 years on, but it does have a handful of great tracks (I’ll also mention the single “Achin’ to Be”) and is worthy of being acknowledged in the band’s stellar discography.

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About James Hrivnak
Child of commerce! Bastard of art!

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