I carefully avoided any press/advance reviews for Wild Stab, the new Paul Westerberg album, because I think that critics tend to be inadvertently dismissive, and I didn’t want my initial impressions to be influenced in any way. Yes, I said “Paul Westerberg album,” even though it is billed as The I Don’t Cares—a collaboration between Westerberg and Juliana Hatfield. I like Juliana Hatfield (her presence here, whether in the background or at the fore on songs like “Dance to the Fight” is a welcome counterweight), and I don’t intend to discount or diminish whatever contribution she made to the record, but having listened to quite a lot of work from both parties, what I hear in Wild Stab is a Paul Westerberg album, and one of the best of his career at that.
Who knows, I could be completely wrong, and the ragged nature of the body of work of both artists could point to an enmeshed, deeply rooted collaboration and partnership. However, after many listens to the subtle layers—the occasional horn stab, the deft keyboard riff, the drums that sound like a man trying to beat out all the rhythm inherent in them in a joyous crash that speaks more to innate ability and sheer bloody mindedness than any actual training—are all the hallmarks of every Westerberg release since his final major label outing, Suicaine Gratification—an album ironically prescient with the reprisal of the punched up, yet still gorgeous “Born for Me.”
Almost casually, haphazardly tossed in among the loose, party atmosphere that permeates and buoys the album throughout, with its lighter, easily tossed off moments (see the endearingly childlike and catchy “½ 2P” and just shy of saccharine “Kissing Break”) are moments of genius songwriting. It’s as though Westerberg is taunting us with his “yeah, I just had these old things lying around” hands in pockets embarrassed shrug moments that most songwriters would give a favorite piece of anatomy to write and Westerberg drops like spare change in a cup. I’m talking about the trio of gems “Back,” “King of America,” and “Hands Together.” These three songs alone are worth the price of admission.
“Back” has a fairly simple lyric that could be interpreted a surface level as Westerberg’s long overdue return to the realm of recorded music, or in a plaintively romantic context—either one with the understanding that he’s only “back if you’ll have [him] just as [he is].” The song chugs along in sonically familiar Westerberg-ian territory, but that seems to be the point, and it’s possibly his best album opener since Suicaine Gratification‘s (there’s that album again) “It’s a Wonderful Lie.”
“King of America” should be a hit single, but it won’t be. To fit the radio pallet, it would need to be run through the studio mill to emerge with a glossy sheen. However, all the elements are there, and as it stands, it’s a fantastic working class anthem, as well as one of Westerberg’s finest recorded moments, topped on this album only by its closing epic.
When I arrived at “Hands Together,” Wild Stab’s final track, during my first run through, I got goosebumps. The riff is simple, but it rings out with a gorgeous arpeggio picking the likes of which any long-suffering (that’s right, I said “suffering”) ‘Mats/Westerberg fans have known since songs like “Unsatisfied” and “Skyway” signifies the arrival of an important, cherished track. As such, from the opening lyrics about attending Ty Cobb’s funeral and dancing with Miss Garbo to the closing choral fade, “Hands Together” is most assuredly one of those tracks, one that—even at nearly seven minutes in length—feels as though it’s over too quickly.
Others will doubtless argue to the contrary, but this is a perfect Westerberg album. Perfect not in the traditional sense of perfection, but in the Westerberg sense—an unmatched alchemy of imperfect, half-baked, yet enjoyable tracks and songs that are easily placed alongside the best in his cannon. Anyone who has listened to him from the first Replacements album on up knows that Westerberg needs the freedom to stab wildly and that, given the room, he will hit the mark more often than not.