The Replacements were party boys with a soul, their sincerity and songwriting acumen all that kept them from being a bunch of boozed-up, burnt out college kids stranded in Minneapolis forever. But as their early albums attest, it took the band a while to get to that point. The Replacements didn’t fulfill their potential until they got just a little bit serious. That evolution came about on the album that many consider the band’s finest, Let It Be, a summation of everything the Replacements were great at.

Before Let It Be, the Replacements were brash, snotty true believers in rock ‘n’ roll. But a sensitive undercurrent emerged that can be heard in brief moments on Hootenanny and a few Paul Westerberg demos from the time. Westerberg, as much a devotee of singer-songwriters as he was of radio rock, was the driving force behind the shift in tone which would manifest itself more fully on later ‘Mats albums. On Let It Be, this created a conflict of ideologies. The band that the Replacements were is pitted against the band that Westerberg saw them being, which is how you end up with an album that features a song like “Unsatisfied” alongside “Gary’s Got A Boner” and “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out.” On paper, Let It Be should be a disaster.

Yet it isn’t. The Replacements struck the perfect balance of frivolity and depth on this album, resulting in their most idiosyncratic work. Opener “I Will Dare” hints that the band was leaving hard rock behind for a straightforward take on the folk-rock sound R.E.M. had been perfecting. (Naturally, they’re assisted in this endeavor by Peter Buck.) But the quick succession of “Favorite Thing” and “We’re Comin’ Out” puts that idea to bed…until Westerberg sits down at the piano to tell the misfits-in-love tale of “Androgynous.” For a band supposedly made up of devoted party animals, the Replacements made surprising leaps forward on Let It Be

There are obvious filler tracks and jokes that theoretically shouldn’t have fit in on this album at all. The KISS cover, the near-instrumental about music videos sucking, the dick joke: none of it should work. Yet, with fresh ears, none of these songs feel out of place, nor do they overstay their welcome. The sincerity of their take on “Black Diamond” almost makes you appreciate Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley’s song craft (almost), and Westerberg’s demented performance on “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” is much funnier than it has any right to be. These larks feel like actual songs, the band performing them with a focus unseen on the previous records. Even showing off their immature side, the Replacements displayed their growing maturity.

That maturity becomes even more apparent when one looks past the jokes. This is the album where Paul Westerberg came into his own as a songwriter, and it features some of his absolute finest works. “Androgynous” was ahead of its time with its tale of love and gender fluidity, and Westerberg never once looked on his characters with a judgmental eye. On “Answering Machine,” he ably plays the part of the combatant in a one-sided argument where the only response he gets is a looped, robotic voice. Best of all is “Unsatisfied,” the song that essentially became the band’s mantra, which was an alternative anthem before there were alternative anthems. Here the laughing stops and Westerberg taps into a primal, near-universal emptiness. It’s never clear what is unsatisfying; what matters is that people stop telling him that he should be happy with what he has. All the while, the band behind him is at its best, giving despondent lyrics a strident, prideful heft. Long before grunge, The Replacements had turned disaffection and alienation into a rallying cry.

Let It Be ultimately signaled the beginning of the end for the old Replacements, the ones whose music matched up with the booze-soaked mythmaking. No longer could they be regarded as a ragtag group of accidental songwriters, kids with guitars who stumbled into writing enjoyable, raucous rock ‘n’ roll. As it turns out, they had feelings and ideas that they no longer wanted to hide behind a veneer of empty rocking. This would lead them down a path that fans today seem to hold in disdain. To them, the ‘Mats are better as underground rock’s rambunctious id as opposed to its soulful ego. Yet Let It Be is almost universally accepted as the band’s finest hour. It’s a great uniter; here, both sides of the Replacements coexist and form one glorious piece of music.

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