It’s fair to say most people’s favorite album by a given artist is usually the first one they heard by them. I was late to appreciate The Replacements, so the first full album by them I had was All Shook Down, their last.
This is an album not generally held in high regard by their fanbase. Many would say it is their worst. As for myself, my favorite is Tim, though this is a very close second.
One aspect of this work many hold against it, whether rightly or wrongly, is this is not a whole-band effort. Although all band members are on it at one point or another, the tracks are fleshed out by a multitude of guest musicians. I have often heard this described as really being Paul Westerberg’s real solo debut, and a Replacements album in name only.
Regardless of the name on the cover, it’s a hell of an album. Except for some instruments which had not previously been employed on one of the act’s releases, I wouldn’t have thought this was anything less than a group effort. The tracks that are supposed to rock do just that, albeit in a more relaxed way than before. But where the album really shines is in its more somber moments, of which there are many.
I’m not sure if Westerberg was trying to stop drinking around this time, but there are many lyrics that suggest he was no longer regarding drinking in a favorable light. I find that interesting, coming from a band whose reputation is greatly built upon the legendary extent of their alcohol consumption. And this wouldn’t be the first time the dark side of alcoholism reared its head, such as on “Here Comes a Regular”, which was from three albums before this one.
Consider these lines from “One Wink at a Time”: “Think to yourself you need some more rum/Use me to lean against/You try to hail an ambulance/Well, baby, try sticking out your tongue”. Or how about these from “The Last”, which just happens to be the last song on their last LP: “So you have another drink/and get down on your knees/You’ve been praying to God/Now maybe if you’d ask/that this one be your last/Cause this one, child, it’s killing you”.
And I suspect things weren’t so hot on the relationship front. There’s “My Little Problem”, a duet with Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde: “I never had a problem/Til I met you/You’d try to solve them”. Or the jilted suitor at a wedding in “Nobody”: “You say, ‘I do’/But, honey, you’re just a kid/Your eyes say, ‘I did’/Still in love with nobody/And I won’t tell nobody”. “When It Began” has lyrics I think could apply to a relationship ending with either a lover or with a band: “I never had to bow to you when we began/Now I can play a tune/at your command”. Things seems to be more directly band-related on “Happy Town” where “you sweep a garage for the neighbors to see/the plan was to set the world on its ear”, only to have the plan “to set the world on fire” collapse, “and I’m willing to bet you don’t last a year”.
But these are nothing compared to the heartbreak in “Sadly Beautiful”, where a biological father laments not being a bigger part of the life of a daughter raised by somebody else. “Had no chance at all/to watch you grow/up so sadly/beautiful”. The bridge really puts the knife in: “Well you’ve got your father’s hair/and you’ve got your father’s nose/but you’ve got my soul”.
The lyrics which most surprise me here show his growth as a writer of character songs. This was something hinted at in songs like the prior album’s “Achin’ to Be” where a woman “opens to mouth to speak and what comes out a mystery” and is “thought about, not understood”. In what could almost be a continuation of that same character, opener “Merry Go Round” begins with “A hush was the first word you were taught”.
He also demonstrates a penchant for noticing odd little details. “One Wink at a Time” opens with “The magazine she flips through is the/special double issue/It smells like perfume/She leaves it on the plane”. “Bent All Out of Shape” contains details of some suspect meals: “I had popcorn for dinner/Last night it was cheesecake”.
The title track is intriguing for being nothing but stray details. I seem to recall hearing once how Westerberg composed this from lines in his notebook he otherwise could not find a place for. I’m glad he finally found an outlet for such gems as “The black and white blues/Oh yeah, I’ve got them in color” and “Some shit on the needle/like your record”. The line “shook my hand as I drowned” mirrors a similar line from “Swinging Party” where there’s “water all around/Never ever learn to swim now”.
While there are personal details in every Replacements album, All Shook Down feels to me like the most intimate in their catalog. I find it analogous to The Velvet Underground’s similarly confessional third album, which just happens to be my very most favorite album, period.
I don’t know what could ever win over people who dislike the album, but I wish anybody who does would take a listen with fresh ears. Maybe it will eventually get the box set treatment like some of their other albums, so it might then get a reappraisal. But I think the opinion of particular one person should be considered by those detractors: Tommy Stinson, the band’s own bassist, considers it the best of their catalog.