One of my favorite albums is Paul Westerberg’s Folker. It is, like the title implies, a collection of folk rock songs, some leaning more one way than the other. It’s the kind of thing that could easily be overlooked by a critic as what makes it great are the details and subtleties inherent in the record. The melodies are knockouts and as always, Westerberg has a feel for music that is natural; He is a musician that is able to communicate emotion with everything he does. This record, like a lot of Westerberg’s stuff, is personal music, much like the music of John Lennon, but even more so. Where Lennon never stopped reaching for the big moment, Westerberg seems content to reflect on his own life. The record, while not a concept record in any traditional sense, does seem to tell a story if you pay close enough attention. He doesn’t break any new ground in a larger sense, he isn’t creating a new genre, but the music is unique as it could only be made by one person in one time and place. Westerberg was growing older, there are relationship troubles hinted at (though these songs may just be a way of communicating inner turmoil), his dad had recently been sick and passed away, and there is a sense of reflection, of looking back and asking what it all means.
The album begins with a joke in the song Jingle, in which Westerberg sings, “buy it now, buy it”, over and over again. It’s almost as if he is clearing the air, before he begins digging in the dirt of his own personal life. There are many ways to interpret that song, which stands in contrast to the rest of the record. Is he purposely creating the contrast, as a way of exposing what most music is, an excuse for a marketing campaign, compared to what should be, the personal music that follows? I have my theories, but this is the kind of record that will leave you with your own. The record ends with two songs, Gun Shy and Folk Star, where Westerberg finally gets back on the rock n roll horse and sings and plays with abandon. Has the deep reflection of the rest of the record allowed him to return to his normal life, or is it that he can only bare that kind of introspection for so long before even he must look away?
One of my favorite songs on the record is Lookin’ Up In Heaven. (And there are no bad songs. In fact the entire album plays almost like one long piece, however, a piece in which all the components are great in and of themselves.) As on much of the record, Westerberg does a bunch of neat tricks as a songwriter. He writes something that is personal, but that still leaves room for interpretation, for the listener to relate enough that the songs could be about them. He is also playful and complex in the emotions conveyed. Although the song has an overall melancholic feel, there are moments of rebellion, humor, and defiance. It’s not all one thing and I think many of the best songs are like that, reflecting the complexity that one feels in any situation. We are so rarely just sad or happy or angry. One of those emotions might take center stage, but they are rarely acting alone. They rarely block out all other thought. Westerberg is also playful with language, using different variations of the line, “I look high again”, to various effect throughout the song.
Another thing that I love about the song is the spoken word lines, “They invited me to stick around, but I told ’em there was another place I had to check out tonight.” I wrote awhile back, when I posted the lyrics of the song that:
This song always makes me think of Mark Twain and about how he thought the traditional view of heaven was everything that people wanted to avoid in real life. A quote from Mr. Twain: “Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it’s as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body could contrive.”
I hope this song will serve as a window into this record. It’s something that I never tire of. In fact, I probably listen to it more than any of his other records, even those with The Replacements. (Though his Mono, under the Grandpa Boy moniker, is a great blast of guitar rock that is ever present in my life as well. It’s like the Rolling Stones meet the Ramones in Sun Studios.) Even it’s lo-fi, low key vibe seem strengths to me years on. It’s has never dated as there is no studio slickness to call attention to the time period it was created in. And the melodies are gorgeous, but are kept from being saccharine by Westerberg’s ramshackle playing and raw singing. (I’ve long felt Westerberg to be one of America’s greatest and most consistent melody writers next to Brian Wilson.) It is a record that again looks inward, but in the best sense possible. In Westerberg’s mirror one can also catch a glimmer of themselves.