The Albums of Winter : **** Great Balls of Fire *** Good Vibrations ** Maybe Baby * Running on Empty


"Don't Tell a Soul." Sire

*** 1/2

How has marriage affected the former premier brat of rock 'n' roll, that mumbling, misunderstood poet laureate of gnarly post-punk pop-thrash, the Replacements' Paul Westerberg?

There's no more sense of satisfaction or settled-ness on "Don't Tell a Soul" than there was in the Minneapolis quartet's previous masterpieces of baby-boom disfranchisement, but there is much more awareness of need for a partner in alienation. With touching, you-and-me-against-the-world anthems (as opposed to me-and-my-band-against-the-world anthems) like "They're Blind," "Achin' to Be" and "Darlin' One," Westerberg's romanticism seems truly romantic for the first time. Almost weepy, even. The boys may miss the visceral Replacements punch of old on this somewhat more mellow set, but the little girls--and the big ones especially--will understand.

At times Westerberg is almost the quintessential sensitive male. He sympathizes with the plight of a young woman whose need for escape leads her from one bad relationship to another: "They play with your head, but they never stroke your hair," he croons in "Anywhere Is Better Than Here"--as good a victim song as "Fast Car."

"Don't Tell a Soul" isn't all maturity, feminism and light. Plenty of cockiness persists, with the band copping an attitude less in the lyrics than in the sloppy, murky way this potentially commercial batch of songs has been played, produced (mainly by the band) and mixed.

Not that neatness has ever counted with the Replacements, but it's as if the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band (or "the last best band of the '80s," as Musician magazine's new cover has it) was afraid to court mainstream radio success by making the album sound as good as it feels. It will be up to the already-converted, of course, to dig deep into its riches and then ignore the title instructions.

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