If neuroscientist Daniel C. Dennett is correct, our minds make narratives from chaos. We make stories, we make melodies and we make sense from nonsense. Paul Westerberg has always intuitively understood this. His songs all have the same soul, the same passion and the same familiar flavor, as humans are sad, cocky and alone. Westerberg has never demonstrated an interest in deconstructing a pop song, and making something we've never heard before, because his aims are more like Guy Clark's -- he wants music that's honest, lived-in and able to move somebody. In this soundtrack to his documentary, he succeeds like a motherfucker at sounding like his same superb self.
Come Feel Me Tremble retains Stereo/Mono's gruff sound, and repeats the format of most Replacements albums, albeit without as many ballads. There are just a few, and they're all brilliant, each showcased between straight rockers and moody punk angst. The best cut, "Crackle & Drag", was a highlight from Westerberg's previous tour in ballad form, but is entirely different in its aggressive original take. The faster version strips away Westerberg's affection for the blues, making pain as pained as pain should feel. It also prolongs the image of a woman's arms, limp as a weeping willow's, and advances the CD's progression from vintage Westerberg rockers to vintage Westerberg dramas. When the jaunty post-alcoholism tune "Knockin' Em Back" follows the piano-tearjerking "Never Felt Like This Before" ("My hand is shaking on the left / My heart is breaking all that's left / Since I met you"), the swagger has a sharp, underlying melancholy on a par with "Here Comes a Regular". Then we get the plea to "Meet Me Down the Alley", and it shows Westerberg's song cycle in an emotional descent.
Come Feel Me Tremble can be read a few ways, as its progressions parallel Westerberg's career. It begins with all the speed and swagger that brought him fame, then follows with all the contemplation that made him worthy of it. Then there's the damn-it, aww-shucks attitude of a person who's merely fighting for an upper tier in Hell. Westerberg casually reworks Jackson Browne's "These Days" for his closing track, and it's one of the most relaxed, depressing songs he's done. Rather than eating melancholia like his vitamins, as he's occasionally wont to do, the song rings more of appreciation for an unexpected kindred spirit. The emotional terrain covered here reinforces the everlasting post-punk notion of God giving Man feet so Man would have something to shoot at.
Westerberg's career suicide impulses have made him promote this record by talking about the one to follow in 2004, but he should be mighty proud of Tremble. Even taking into account his work with the Replacements, this is the album on which every song is truly worth hearing. Also, Westerberg's writing here is the far more natural, singular tense stuff. He may not be writing about his own life and experiences, but at least he sounds as if he is. He's not overdoing wordplay ("Suicaine Gratifaction") for cleverness' sake, and he's not acting like he's our spokesperson for all "who felt this blue before". Instead, he's busy giving disgruntled middle-aged men the energy to take their scorn for the day that has passed and strut it about; his songs make every mangled, murdered day worth it.