Artists tinkering with their past works can raise a lot of ethical questions, partly because some say that it stops belonging to them upon release. That’s why George Lucas’ additions to the original Star Wars trilogy in the ’90s feel not only unnecessary, but outrageous. But what if this was done to bring out the good qualities in a project almost universally considered to be a disappointment? Do their creators then have the right to revisionism? The new Replacements box set “Dead Man’s Pop” makes a good argument for the yes camp, with its rough-around-the-edges remastering revealing a fantastic album within their cheesy and overproduced 1989 album “Don’t Tell a Soul.”
Both beloved for their ’80s output and gossiped about for their drunken-live shows and general dysfunction, the Replacements often feel more like mythological figures than a tangible band that actually existed at one point. Their persona as rock’s most lovable losers were etched into their name itself, a self-proclamation of their own expendability. That revering, hushed-toned mythology, however, doesn’t usually extend to “Don’t Tell a Soul.” The recording process was chaotic, even by the band’s standards, with their record label wanting a sleek-commercial sound that ate away at the vulnerable rawness that made them great. Additionally, they had arguably been in a slow death spiral after firing classic-lineup guitarist Bob Stinston in 1986 and were becoming more of a solo project for singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg than actual band.
But as the newly unearthed recordings of “Soul” show, appearances can be misleading, giving us the album that should’ve existed in its place. The production is the saving grace here, offering the dirt central to the Replacements’ sound, while still letting their fantastic pop sensibilities shine. The self-deprecating sheen of opener “Talent Show” is no longer suffocated by studio magic, as it really allows the music to reflect Westerberg singing to “an empty seat in the front row” and makes the band’s musical self-sabotage after the line “look at us all, we’re nervous wrecks” awe-inspiring.
A lot of the songs on “Soul” are dismissed as filler, but this reworking shows most of them to be shockingly good. Tracks that previously reeked of Top 40-desperation and ‘80s cheese like “I’ll Be You” and “Telling Me Lies” benefit the most from this reworking, challenging the mythological consensus that they had long run out of tricks. This reframing shows that bad production choices can unfairly tarnish what is, deep down, a good album.
There are definitely artists that deserve this retrospective more than the Replacements, one of the most beloved and influential indie rock groups, but I’d make the case that this album deserved the means to a kinder retrospective, and I’m incredibly glad it got one. For me, being a Replacements fan is a really intimate experience, one where even though most of my friends either don’t know or care for them, and that’s okay because the music itself is an emotional experience I can invest in. “Dead Man’s Pop” is yet another opportunity to do this for a band that already had them in spades.