Tuesday, February 17, 2009

31 Greatest Albums: Paul Westerberg - 'Suicaine Gratifaction'

The first time I heard this album I was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and I'd just fallen in love harder than I ever imagined possible. But I'd essentially given up on Paul Westerberg and I dismissed the album out of hand. My new love was thunderstruck by what she heard but I'd jaded myself into a lack of recognition.

Now? It is his masterpiece. Of course I couldn't hear it at the time. If I had actually let this music in at that point in my life (marriage crumbling, new fatherhood, love I couldn't truly accomodate) I would have had a nervous breakdown. So I filed it under Paul Westerberg slowly slipping away from icon status to nostalgic teenage memory.

Cut to two years later. I've taken necessary steps in my life. I've ended my marriage. I've begun a relationship with the new love who got 'Suicaine Gratifaction' at first glance. I've expanded my own musical horizons in such a way that I've transformed my art forever (thanks, Cousin Tim).

I revisit this album. This time it is a sledgehammer to my soul. It is as if all the pain that I'd been forced to marginalize has now been given free reign through spinning this disc.

He opens with 'It's A Beautiful Lie'. I'd written it off as another pun/wordplay puff piece. I had felt like he was using clever bon mots as shorthand instead of getting to any kind of real psychological truth. Now? This was a desperate man who was clinging to the power to shape words, to morph one thing into another. And who couldn't see any basic truth in the pursuit he'd dedicated his life to. Hmmm...sound familiar? As Michael Jackson said, "I'm starting with the man in the mirror." I knew in a flash that I'd completely misread the entire album because it was simply too painful for me to experience.

I then opened my heart to it completely. And let me tell you, it was a difficult hour. And it dawned on me that that was the true nature of the genius at work. He was absolutely unconcerned with any sense of enjoyment.

And once I gave over I saw that I'd been expecting something else from him, I'd been stingy. I'd not allowed what he actually offered to enter my consciousness. So when he said, "Cheekbones and hormones/He's the accidental man", I was trying to hear something else. Next he called himself "the best thing that never happened" and I superimposed some other sentiment. He then roused himself to declare that he was "lookin' out forever" now. That is quite a journey in three songs. And I completely missed it.

He stops for a poignant song of love, "Born For Me" which drives us right into "Final Hurrah" which states exactly what it implies. This is my final hurrah. Which in itself creates a next moment after that supposed finality. Where was my reaction to all of this bare naked articulation? I was perpetuating an idea I had of him across the actuality of his work.

I'll never do that again.

I sneered at the open romanticism of "Sunrise Always Listens". I thought "Actor In The Street" was deliberately vague and obscure. "Bookmark" was quietly effective but why would he end the album on such a dour somber note?

Hmmmmm...I realized in my new listen that I'd done him a great disservice in my initial response. I had failed him as an audience. An audience must engage what they witness on the terms put forth by the artist in question. Perhaps your taste will eventually decide that it isn't to your liking, but first you must meet it halfway.

So when Paul sang "I'm the fugitive kind/You better make up your mind/I can't wait", all of a sudden I realized that I'd made him wait and that he'd left me behind. I caught up right quick.

This album is Paul Westerberg's flag on the moon. Who am I to claim it was shot in the Phoenix desert?