The Replacements – Don’t Tell A Soul

Don’t Tell A Soul (1989)


1. Talent Show 2. Back To Back 3. We’ll Inherit The Earth 4. Achin’ To Be 5. They’re Blind 6. Anywhere’s Better Than Here 7. Asking Me Lies 8. I’ll Be You 9. I Won’t 10. Rock ‘N’ Roll Ghost 11. Darlin’ One


Oh man, what’d they have to go and grow up on us for? No, they hadn’t been the juvenile malignerers they started out as for a few records now, but on Don’t Tell A Soul, they go full on adult style, which, as always, is expressed by hushed, weary vocals, acoustic guitars, and synth pads. Even more heinously, the album features a few instances of what seem to be blatant attempts to blend in with the late 80s MTV crowd, which was more than enough for longtime Mats fans to lay hastily the sellout charge against Paul, the one guy who always seemed immune to all that, who was supposed to be One Of Us, for better or worse. And yeah, there is something kinda off-putting hearing him resign himself to a new quavering, low-register voice that doesn’t do much to inject life into the album’s glitzy, dated production. Not to mention hearing him sing something as skeevy as “Talent Show,” the sort of self-referential showbiz sendup that’s usually traded in by less talented, egomaniacal songwriters (ahem) and that’s never as amusing or relatable as it hopes to be.

But beneath this new, admittedly and disappointingly alienating façade of late 80s MTV production and increased self-seriousness, there’s still a batch of a little more than a half dozen or so perfectly fine, and occasionally affecting singer-songwriter efforts. Of course, that’s not exactly what fans had looked to the Replacements for in the past, but accepted on their own terms, the strongest parts of Don’t Tell A Soul definitely have their own interesting vibe going on. And that includes “Talent Show,” which, despite the awkwardly forward if at least somewhat playful lyrics (“Playin’ at the talent show/An empty seat in the front row/We might even win this time, guys, you never know”), is a pretty catchy little toe tapper. Just don’t expect anything approaching the borderline reckless energy level these guys had displayed previously. Oh sure, the whole thing’s loud as shit from a mastering standpoint, cause that way Warner Bros. could get it played on the radio. But there’s no denying how downright tired Paul sounds here, even on the more upbeat cuts. And when he does try to rekindle the rabble rousing rock ‘n roll fires of old, the result is “I Won’t,” one of the most clueless and grating blues rock workouts I’ve heard since I saw this band of fat, anonymous middle aged dudes play a 20-minute cover of “Pride And Joy” in Detroit one time. No, to accept Don’t Tell A Soul is to revel in simpler, more mannered pleasures, like the shockingly treacly but winningly melodic ballad “They’re Blind.” Or “Achin’ To Be,” which sounds like the entire basis for Wilco in just under four minutes. Which probably says something about Wilco… I mean, is that all there is to the formula? A few simple countryish guitar licks, three chords, a catchy but straightforward melody, a nonurgent medium tempo, and an arrangement so generic fuckin’ Jack Johnson could have thought of it? Whatever, it works, and “Achin’ To Be” is the most comfortable-sounding and loveable song on the album. And I love Wilco, too. Suck me.

So there’s a new lead guitarist, Slim Dunlap, who is responsible for adding some rather unexpected textures to the proceedings. I don’t know if it was the producer’s idea or his, but evidently ol’ Slim decided to record his parts inside the Hindenburg. Most of his parts are so loud and reverb-heavy that that’s what it sounds like, at least. This endows the band with a sort of instant arena-ready sound that they hadn’t approached to nearly this extent before, despite previous overtures toward that sound with “Go” and parts of Tim. At times, it works – easily the two most rousing and captivating songs on the album are “We’ll Inherit The Earth” and “Darlin’ One,” which go a long way toward nailing a not often captured moody-yet-ultra anthemic 70s Who vibe.  A far cry from the scrappiness of Hootenanny and Let It Be, to be sure, but they’re interesting and basically successful experiments. Unfortunately, when they try to draw from that well a third time, the result is “Anywhere’s Better Than Here,” which comes dangerously close to sounding like Bon Jovi. Then they follow that up with the rancid pastel suit-wearing white guy funk of “Asking Me Lies,” which I’m sure Bob Stinson wouldn’t have touched with a 12,000,000,000 foot pole, and suddenly the drifting away from their roots thing starts to seem like a pretty awful thing after all.

I guess the major label sheen and awkward experimentation would have been worth it if it had actually ended up being a commercial breakthrough. But alas, the presumptive hit—solid lead single, “I’ll Be You,” which sports a catchy lead guitar hook and is the most nominally Replacements-like tune on the album—failed to crack the top 50, and album sales, though higher in volume than any previous Mats album, weren’t brisk enough. Thus, Don’t Tell A Soul proved to be unsatisfying to both the mainstream and the underground, which is why it remains so maligned to this day despite the fact that there are a few minor treasures to be dug from it.

Tracks 6, 7, and 9, though? Totally worth maligning.

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