Paul Westerberg – Beyond misanthropy
“Father. Artist. Midwesterner. Eccentric. Walker…” So begins Paul Westerberg’s noun-filled description of himself in the bio for his new album, Suicaine Gratifaction. The order of the words is important, for not only is Westerberg an astute judge of his own character, he’s also a stickler about prioritizing. As always, he relishes the notion of mixing flaws with strengths, dysfunction with adaptability, self-doubt with certitude. “Romantic. Liar. Has-been. Hero…”
No one knows Paul Westerberg better than Paul Westerberg, and therein lies the key to his art. He may not always like what he sees in the mirror, but he never flinches from looking.
These days Westerberg seems more comfortable in his own skin than he’s ever been. Once a great songwriter for a great rock ‘n’ roll band, nowadays he’s simply a great songwriter, unencumbered by any sense of duty to write for anyone but himself. Still, far from betraying aging Replacements fans who once viewed him as the exemplar of their own youthful confusion, Westerberg has, in his solo career, lighted a way toward maturation. Lou Reed once titled an album Growing Up In Public. In the case of Westerberg, the phrase is a tattered emblem unfurled across his entire catalog.
Co-produced with Don Was, Suicaine Gratification finds Westerberg plunging even deeper into the introspective terrain that has dotted much of his previous work. Mixing lots of piano balladry with a handful of guitar-lite rockers (“fucked-up folk music,” Westerberg calls it), the album is less concerned with execution than with songcraft. As always, wordplay is rampant throughout, only now the “play” is intertwined with the sort of contemplative musings one would expect in a man reaching the end of his 30s (Westerberg will turn 40 on Dec. 31, 2000).
During the making of Suicaine Gratification, Westerberg (at the suggestion of Was, at times) enlisted help from such illustrious peers as Shawn Colvin, Jim Keltner, and the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench. But perhaps more than ever before, this is Westerberg’s show all the way.
NO DEPRESSION: On your previous album, Eventually, it was especially important to you that the songs fit together well. How important was that to you this time?
PAUL WESTERBERG: I gave no concern to how the songs fit; they just did. They were all written within a period…in a similar frame of mind, and they all seemed to have a thread, whether it was [due to] my state of mind, or lack of over-instrumentation, or the fact that it was mostly recorded at home. But it felt like they all belonged on the same record, to me.
ND: Eventually had a sort of “passage-of-time” theme. Are you saying you didn’t have a theme specifically in mind for this one?
PW: Well, it isn’t a concept album. Had there been another slow song that happened to be about, say, carnival workers, I wouldn’t have left that off because it didn’t fit. If it was a good enough song, I would have kept it on. But I guess there’s a kind of feeling of moving on, or of not knowing where to go to next. I think [the song] “Fugitive Kind” sums it up well.
ND: Assuming that “It’s A Wonderful Lie” is largely autobiographical, do you really think of yourself as a misanthrope, sometimes?
PW: Yes — the key word being “sometimes.” I’m assured that I’m not, by others, but it feels that way at times. It all goes back to self-love. If you don’t love yourself, it’s impossible to love others. It all stems from self-absorption, or lack of self-esteem — something like that. But on a lighter note, I’ve always been a bit of a loner, and preferred my own company. The song is a play on words, obviously, from [the film] It’s A Wonderful Life. For years I’ve wanted to twist that title around, because…it’s a great movie, but I always found discrepancies in it. Part of me thought, yeah, I feel like [the James Stewart character] should’ve done what he did, or done what he always wanted to do. I mean, if you can be happy with your life the way it is, and forget about the dreams you once had, you’re a mighty strong person. I guess that’s most of us, but it’s like, the whole point of the song is to follow your dreams no matter where they lead you.
ND: You say you prefer your own company. Have you ever been afraid your life might become insular to the point that it might be detrimental to your writing?
PW: Well, I’m not so interested in being a writer that I do things that are good for my writing, or bad for my writing — which is probably like the classic writer. (laughs) I don’t drink anymore, but if a writer chooses to drink himself to death, is that good or bad for his writing? It’s like, I don’t care. It’s just what you want to do. [Solitude] is part of my make-up. From the time I was a young child, I’ve always preferred my own company. And I need to be alone when I work. I need to gather material in the company of others, but I [also] do a lot of my thievery from books, as it were.