A younger Paul Westerberg might have balked at the long piano intro that begins the song, "Fugitive Kind," on his third solo album, Suicaine Gratifaction.
But it's now 18 years since Westerberg's blistering post-punk band, the Replacements, first released an LP. These days, the singer-guitarist said, he's increasingly open to different types of song structures and styles.
"When punk rock came, I threw my log in with that, because that was the way to go," Westerberg, 39, said. "With the whole notion of punk rock, who's got time for a [piano] introduction? But I used to listen to Yes and even Bruce Springsteen and stuff like that."
In general, Westerberg sets a somber tone on Suicaine Gratifaction, set to hit stores Tuesday (Feb. 23). It's far removed from the frantic three-chord energy of the Replacements' punk-influenced rock. Instead, it strings together gentler material such as the quiet, acoustic "It's A Wonderful Lie" (RealAudio excerpt), which opens the album. A host of introspective piano ballads, including "Self-Defense," "Sunrise Always Listens" and "Bookmark" are among the songs that follow.
During the Replacements' heyday, the Minneapolis quartet was as well-known for its chaotic live show -- featuring unlikely covers and band members in dresses and in various stages of intoxication -- as it was for such critically acclaimed albums as 1984's Let It Be.
Westerberg disbanded the Replacements in 1991; a year later, he recorded two songs for the soundtrack to the movie, "Singles." Eventually, he would release a pair of well-received solo albums -- 1993's 14 Songs and 1996's Eventually.
Eight years since the Replacements' split, Westerberg said that he sometimes wonders what he's doing onstage. He goes so far as to address his doubts about performing in the lyrics to some of his new songs. For example, the phrase "like a stone on a grave," which surfaces on Suicaine Gratifaction in "Lookin' Out Forever" and then again in "Fugitive Kind," refers to his discomfort in the spotlight.
"I think I wrote [the phrase] one night when I came home from a gig on tour," Westerberg said. "I usually scribble things down when I can't sleep, and that's how I felt on this stage in front of however many thousands of people at this festival. I felt like a stone on a grave."
For the recording of Suicaine Gratifaction, Westerberg paired up with producer Don Was (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan). The album was recorded at Ocean Way Studio in Los Angeles, with high-profile guests such as Grammy-winning artist Shawn Colvin, who stopped in to sing backing vocals on the acoustic love song "Born for Me."
Was and Westerberg got along famously in the studio, even going so far as to credit the production of the album to a conglomerate of their names, "Don and Paul Wasterberg." But the good time didn't stop Was from appreciating Westerberg's considerable ability to write great lyrics.
"I think he's really an eloquent poet," Was said. "There are a number of ways to make a point in a song. Most people don't go past sloganeering ... [but] 'Everybody join hands! No more starving children!' doesn't [touch your feelings].
"A good poet substitutes metaphor," Was continued. "And you get more of a feeling for the starving child. That's what I think Paul does. His metaphors are original and really distinctive."
If his writing has grown in power after nearly two decades of recording, it seems to make sense that Westerberg is more open to the kind of happy accident that helped shape the sound and arrangement of "Fugitive Kind."
"When 'Fugitive Kind' was written, [I had] the loud part ... first," Westerberg said. "[Then,] I rewound the tape ... and pretty much improvised something on the piano. I myself prefer that little piano part. I wish that was a whole song.
"Those are the kind of creative mistakes that I live for."