Perhaps the most significant collection of misfits to emerge in the 1980s, Minneapolis-based The Replacements were a group unquestionably deserving of crossover success, at their peak releasing a series of albums that screamed mainstream appeal which never really eventuated. From their early snarling and hissing punk-laden beginnings, the group matured surprisingly quickly with the sublime release Let It Be in 1984, an album that gained so much acclaim that the group was granted an inevitable major label contract with Sire Records, leading to the release of their fourth album Tim in 1985.
Originally intended to be handled by Big Star’s Alex Chilton, the production duties on Tim were instead managed by punk contemporary Tommy Ramone, and with the financial backing of a major label, Tim sees a vast technical upgrade over the rather sparse, budgeted Let It Be. True to the band’s style, the opening track “Hold My Life” wastes no time setting the tone of much of the album, roaring into life with a mess of heavy guitar, crashing drums and pounding bass, along with lead vocalist Paul Westerberg howling with the spirit of a young Bruce Springsteen, but with an indifferent, adolescent edge – “Hold my life until I’m ready to use it / Hold my life because I just might lose it”. Slightly more refined but just as emphatic, the following “I’ll Buy” is a rollicking number that not just evokes 50s Rock ‘n Roll, but references it (“Movies are for retards like me and Maybelline”) and it’s here that the album’s higher-end production style becomes its greatest asset, with Westerberg’s vocals jumping from prolonged wails of “Anything you want, dear” and “Everything you say, dear” to powerful reverberating bursts of “fine, fine, fine, fine” and “buy, buy, buy, buy”.
An endearing, backhanded ballad to unfriendly flight attendants, the thumping, folk-driven “Waitress in the Sky” is among the album’s highlights, as Westerberg cruelly points out “You ain’t nothing but a waitress in the sky”, later comparing the term ‘air hostess’ with other professions that are somewhat unsavoury (“Sanitation expert and a maintenance engineer / Garbage man, a janitor and you my dear”). The closer of the album’s first side, “Swingin Party” presents itself as evidence of the band’s ability to shift in tempo, featuring delightfully breezy, jangly guitar along with prolonged, heartfelt and pained vocals by Westerberg. It’s a track filled with so much self-deprecation and insecurity that it’s almost unbearable, as Westerberg laments his future (“Quittin’ school and goin’ to work and never goin’ fishin’”) as well as bleakly putting his faults on display (“If being wrong’s a crime I’m serving forever / If being strong is what you want I need help with this here feather”)
Completing a superb one-two punch of track sequencing, the opener of the album’s second half “Bastards of Young” is without a doubt the ultimate rambunctious punk anthem, with Westerberg continuously screaming over relentless, blistering guitar work by Bob Stinson. As gnarly and hard as this track is, the poignancy of Westerberg’s lyrics are remarkably striking and hard-hitting (“The ones who love us best are the ones we lay to rest / The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please”) all the while chastising the state of Reagan’s ruthless, competition-driven America – “God what a mess on the ladder of success / Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung”, and the refrain “We are the sons of no-one / Bastards of young” typifies a sort of confused, adolescent sense of marginalisation. This track was fittingly chosen for the band’s network debut on Saturday Night Live, which has since become infamous not just for its raucousness, but also the band’s conduct – Westerberg cursed on air and the band stumbled around drunkenly on stage after concluding the song. Although this wasn’t a huge shock to Replacements fans (they were notorious for their hectic live performances), it was a bit of a setback for the band, receiving a lifetime ban from the show and probably hurting their chances of further mainstream exposure.
After the adrenalin-infused college radio staples “Lay It Down Clown”, “Left of the Dial” (the title itself a reference to college radio) and “Little Mascara” is the down-tempo, miserable closing track “Here Comes a Regular”, featuring just acoustic guitar alongside Westerberg’s morose vocals. As the album’s final chance to impart anything on Westerberg’s generation, he warns against idly sitting in a state of procrastination and apathy – “The fool who wastes his life, god rest his guts” all in the context of a narrator in a bar, watching the seasons pass as the people around him come and go, while he just stays at home and endlessly drinks. I’ve always regarded R.E.M. as America’s counterpart to The Smiths, but after hearing tracks like this, I’d say The Replacements are probably more fitting of that comparison – particularly when considering Westerberg’s emotionally-driven, introspective lyrics as well as his undeniably emphatic presence as a vocalist, not to mention chaotic and captivating displays by Stinson, who resented playing compositions similar to “Here Comes a Regular”, eventually being ejected from the band.
Overall, Tim is an astonishing, breath-taking record, carrying the listener through soaring highs and subterranean lows over indisputably passionate and energetic instrumentation, with Westerberg being the ideal spokesperson for a disillusioned generation of young Americans, his grizzly, throaty voice at times furious, other times forlorn. It’s a flawless collection of songs from a band that flew far too low under the radar, but as a consolation their output has been consistently ranked by critics as among the greatest achievements of the era, and deservedly so. Simply put, Tim is the quintessential rock record, easily a must-have for any music fan.