Minneapolis, MN alternative rock giants The Replacements released seven studio albums during their active lifetime as a band throughout the Eighties. It comes probably as no surprise that the front end of their discography—culminating with their legendary back-to-back triplet that transitioned them onto major label stardom, Let It Be (1984), Tim (1985), and Pleased to Meet Me (1987)—is commonly and widely considered to be their musical and creative apex, by both high and low-brow listeners alike. There is also little denying of the fact that a specular widespread fan consensus over their last two full length outings, 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul and the following year’s swan song All Shook Down (basically a proto-Paul Westerberg solo helping), is somewhat lukewarm and nothing to write home about, at best.
Here’s the catch: hoarding broad-brush critical agreement never pushed the envelope of stoked human progress. However, speaking of broad brushes, more than revisiting and reclaiming entire parts of The Mats’ overall recorded studio output—which incidentally is completed a raft of additional live albums, compilation bundles, and EPs—this piece looks to rewrite history for on one particular project. Or rather still, its hitherto tainted, jagged, and misunderstood legacy.
Such zeroed-in record answers to the name of the aforementioned Don’t Tell a Soul: an 11-track album initially released on 1st February 1989 on Warner Music’s Sire Records. It’s The Replacements’ sixth, and the first ever featuring lead guitarist Bob “Slim” Dunlap on tape, who was called up in lieu of late and disgraced founding member Bob Stinson in early 1987. Now, before delving irreparably into the nooks and crannies of the argumentation here, at this stage it should probably be mentioned how this album did in actuality fare largely favourably with both music critics and the mainstream at the time.
For Christ’s sake—according to trusted sources including the documentary The Replacements: Color Me Obsessed, Don’t Tell a Soul still stands as the band’s biggest selling LP to date. Which is something that makes a featured thinkpiece set out to defend it and its glossy sound engineering such as this one all the more logically frail. Yet anytime The Replacements, their commitment to self-derangement, and their larger-than-life looming indie lore come into the foray, logic and rationality always kind of seem to default to getting thrown out of a conceptual window.
Remember the raft of additional live albums, compilation bundles, and EPs that help beef up and ornament The Mats’ lauded discography on top of their seven studio LPs? Well, glad you do—for it turns out that one of the most recent issues as part of said catalogue is an ambitious four-disc, 60-track box set filed under the title Dead Man’s Pop. It was earmarked, manufactured, and distributed in 2019 by Rhino Entertainment, under the careful curatorial supervision of the band’s biographer Bob Mehr as well as a slew of syrupy Warner execs. Crucially, the collection’s first disc is entirely comprised of a remixed, re-arranged, and re-sequenced version of Don’t Tell a Soul.
Colloquially dubbed the Don’t Tell a Soul Redux, this overhauled and reimagined collection of tracks both sprouted and harvested from raw session mixes by the album’s original producer (albeit not final mixing engineer) Matt Wallace—who was pretty much a nameless, faceless indie bloke at the time. These stood in sharp contrast to the subsequent major label-endorsed mixing work and production carried out by 80s engineering royalty and multi-Grammy Awards-winning Chris Lord-Alge, whose pedigree and portfolio read like a greatest hits list of names of that decade (Tina Turner, Carly Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna).
Therefore, far from a nostalgic and self-indulgent collector’s item, Dead Man’s Pop’s inherent revisiting flair ended up pulling out all the archival stops, except becoming an actual 30th-year anniversary reissue of Don’t Tell a Soul. For one, it’s completed by a slate of additional bundles, starting with a second disc of rarities and non-album cuts billed We Know the Night: Rare and Unreleased, collating early versions of rough drafts from the group’s Don’t Tell a Soul studio sessions, as well as late-night drunken collaborations recorded with storied singer/songwriter Tom Waits. Two final batches of tracks attached to the box set combine to form a full live album titled The Complete Inconcerated Live, expanding on the quartet’s eponymous 1989 promotional EP.
Now for the aggravating bit, ladies and gentlemen: multiple sources (as well as the horse’s very own mouth) claim that such a rush of new-found curatorial blood to the head was motivated by principal songwriter, co-founder, and creative mastermind Paul Westerberg’s fundamental dissatisfaction with their original product released thirty years ago. A reckoning that translates into the epiphany that Paul himself, bassist Tommy Stinson, stickman Chris Mars, and Slim Dunlap—in addition to countless fans around the globe—had had to coexist and wrestle with such a profound juxtapositional ethos as they looked back on their best selling album for over three decades. Pretty on brand for The Mats, if you ask us. Let that sink in for a moment.
This still leaves us at the mercy of a discursive place acknowledging how the band, its closest entourage, its devoted and diehard fans, as well as most of the critical ivory tower leagues rallied together in solidarity begging for ‘another chance’. They all convened and called for The Replacements to take another stab at the true work of art that lurked beneath Don’t Tell a Soul’s surface level polish and uptight elegance. In this respect, look no further than group’s frontman Paul Westerberg going as far as stating that “[the record] sounded good until the label brought in people to mix it to make it sound like everything else on the radio”. Elsewhere, so Wallace in retrospect: “At the time, when the mixing […] was completed, I had numerous musician friends who were rabid fans of The Replacements and each one […] accused me of ‘ruining The Replacements’”.
Yet again on the other side of this raison d’être inquisition lie folks such as yours truly—evidently allied with hundreds of thousands of disposable income-owners and unit-movers—who are struggling to make heads or tails of such a tardive and, frankly, spoilt creative undoing. This is done while hastily pointing at selected stems (requesting exhibit ”Asking Me Lies“), flat out superior songwriting-to-tape on key tunes (requesting exhibits “They’re Blind” and “Anywhere’s Better Than Here“), a more cohesive overall listen and tracklisting (requesting exhibit “I Won’t“), as well as BVs that actually enhance a composition rather than jeopardise it (requesting exhibit “We’ll Inherit the Earth“), to humbly will-whisper into existence a trialling accompanied by the following sentence: the original 1989 Don’t Tell a Soul is a better album. Period.
Your honours, isn’t this the part where we would take it upon ourselves to analyse and dissect individual clues to further cement and corroborate similar claims? Should we, though? Instead, one could surely begin with stressing out how no one involved in the conception of the record, from Paul himself to higher-ups at the label, was or is a foolish impulsive decision-maker actively pursuing a high-budget product’s kneecapping. Certainly, one has got to surrender their self-centrism and loosen their tie and trust the process here—yet perhaps more importantly embrace the notion that the band, its management, and the underlying business that supports and profits from it must’ve arrived at the decision to enrol Chris Lord-Alge on mixing duties carefully and considerably.
Yes, of course the irony of lining up signifiers such as management, business, and profit next to a band like The Replacements all in one sentence is not lost on us. Yet we humbly ask: has a sly and red herring-y knack for a dorky and naive smoke and mirrors facade not always been The Mats’ divisive modus operandi all along their blistering career? What if Dead Man’s Pop and its apparent long-overdue redemptive fanfare—finally cancelling alleged wrongs committed at the height of the group’s major label career—were all yet another sublime con-job sculpted by Paul and co. to mock industry and fanbase alike? What if we all chose to believe that the original version of this album is The Replacements’ second career act’s pièce de résistance? No matter the real answer—Mr Westerberg would not want us to tell a single soul anyway.
I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.