According to the book Our Band Could Be Your Life, the Replacements’ pre-show reallying cry went a bit like this:
“Where are we going?”
“To the middle!”
While probably meant as nod to their underachiever status, rather than an actual bid for the prosaic, it’s more accurate than most `Mats fans (including myself) would like to admit. In no way unsuccessful, the `Mats were verifiable rock stars in the burgeoning indie rock underground of the 1980s, yet a good majority of the American public was (and, unfortunately, still is unaware) of the `Mats. They lie somewhere in the middle.
And it’s the middle that marks Tim, the ‘Mats fourth album. Tim was their first on major label Sire and must have been incredibly scary for the four fuck-ups from Minneapolis. After the critical acclaim of their 1984 album, Let it Be, the band had two options at that point in their career: succeed and take their place in the pantheon of rock gods or fail and head back to Minnesota to wallow in obscurity. “Time for decisions to be made / Crack up in the sun, lose it in the shade,” Paul Westerberg sings on opening track “Hold My Life.” It’s the fear of both paths that allows the `Mats to churn out some of the strongest songs of their storied career.
Dissatisfaction with their stasis around the time of Tim is noted in, believe it or not, a diss track. On “Waitress in the Sky,” the `Mats diatribe against the flight service industry, Westerberg sings verses like, “Paid my fare, don’t wanna complain/ You get to me, you’re always outta champagne. / Treat me like a bum, don’t wear no tie/ ’cause you ain’t nothin’ but a waitress in the sky,” and, most importantly “Don’t treat me special, don’t kiss my ass/ Treat me like the way they treat ’em up in first class.” The `Mats, despite their seemingly apathetic attitude, just want to be treated like the stars that college radio made them out to be. Without the support of the mainstream radio, even the flight attendants were going to treat them like shit.
The flip side of the spectrum is exemplified by “Here Comes a Regular,” a heartbreaking ballad that is no doubt Tim‘s best song. It tells the story of the bar regulars who, day in and day out, take their seat after “a hard day of nothing much at all.” Westerberg’s fear is that he envisions himself becoming of one of these people. If Tim is not the commercial success that everyone envisions it should be, will he become one of them? On “Swinging Party,” Westerberg sings “If being afraid is a crime, we hang side by side.”
Up to that point, Tim was the Mats’ clean-sounding album (Pleased to Meet Me would eventually hold that title), thanks to producer Tommy Erdelyi (a.k.a. Tommy Ramone). The sloppiness of previous albums, probably best exemplified by the devil-may-care punk of Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, is replaced by a much cleaner sound. While the production may be slightly glossier, it’s certainly anything but slick. Westerberg’s scratchy voice still strains when he is reaching down into the depth of his emotions on songs like “Little Mascara,” and guitarist Bob Stinson is remains the band’s lush supreme, with his messy chops highlighted on “Dose of Thunder.” It would be Stinson’s last album with the band before being replaced for Please to Meet Me by Slim Dunlap. He would be sorely missed.
Tim wasn’t a smash but it didn’t do poorly either. So, in a way, the Mats ended up right where they started. If the Replacements and Tim are what “the middle” sounds like, I never want to hear the top.