The legendary alt-rock group the Replacements was formed in 1979 as a ramshackle outfit led by a smart-ass Minneapolis janitor named Paul Westerberg. At the time, punk was the least commercial music you could make, with the movement’s biggest acts, such as the Ramones and The Clash, beginning to embrace more conventional rock sounds. Minneapolis felt as far as you could get, culturally speaking, from the punk hotbeds of New York and London. The odds seemed so stacked against Westerberg and crew that they assumed an us-against-the-world stance that often toppled into self-sabotage.
Throughout the ’80s, the Replacements always seemed like they were about to implode. Their members melted down in miasmas of drugs and alcohol. Their records overflowed with slipshod hooks and slurred wordplay. Shows devolved into frenzies of broken strings and shed blood. But it wasn’t until they started to pull themselves together and aim for the mainstream in the late ’80s that the band started to come apart musically. Those cracks showed on their grand misstep of an album, 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul.
First released as the group was celebrating its 10th anniversary, Don’t Tell a Soul was recently remixed and reissued as the centerpiece of the new Replacements box set, Dead Man’s Pop. The band’s sixth album, Don’t Tell a Soul traded sloppy glory for softness and polish. As Westerberg told Sounds magazine in 1989, “We still have a good time and all that. It’s not a stuffy record. Serious is a better term than mature.” As earnest and atmospheric as a U2 album, Don’t Tell a Soul wasn’t recognizably punk in any way, aside from a few loose notes here and there (as well as Westerberg’s booze-spiked rasp, which no amount of studio processing could completely wear smooth). Granted, each album in the Replacements’ catalog sounded slightly cleaner and more accomplished than the one before, and the 1986 firing of the brilliantly scattershot guitarist Bob Stinson (who died of drug-related organ failure in 1995) had eradicated a primary source of the group’s raggedness.