As brilliant, unprolific songwriters go, Paul Westerberg is the polar opposite of Guy Clark. Whereas Clark's lyrics are as natural as conversation, Westerberg favors wordplay, puns and lines that are sculpted by rewrites. Westerberg wears his art proudly in his songs, and that's fine. Both songwriters have made songs I've turned to, sometimes desperately, for comfort; where Guy Clark's "Boats to Build" and "Randall Knife" support the unpleasantly mature moves age has taught us to make, Westerberg's songs are for those oddly proud moments when you stand among the defeated. If you'd compare Clark to Larry McMurtry, then Westerberg is Flannery O'Connor, singing for the losers and offering redemption to the rejected.
Contrary to statements from the Pontius Pilates of the press, who have thrown Westerberg's solo material on the stake, his particular greatness has stayed the same from his first great song ("Goddamn Job") to his last. "Things", "Love Untold", "It's a Wonderful Lie" and "Actor in the Street" all capture the same alienation that a "Sixteen Blue" or "Bastards of Young" captured. They're songs to play when you're passing up an operation because your insurance won't cover it; you feel them best by placing one hand on the hernia, the other on the heart, and then staring at people who go through hospital doors and come out healthier.
Stereo/Mono is less polished than Westerberg's other solo efforts, but the song quality is consistent. If lyrics are occasionally muffed or made on the fly, as Westerberg claims, they sound the same as in his past songs: we get poetic renderings of desperation ("No day is safe from / Thoughts of you leaving") and anger ("Baby learns to crawl / Watching Daddy's skin"), and an almost boastful dissolution of the artist's spirit ("I ain't got anything / To say to anyone / Anymore"). "Mr. Rabbit", the odd duck cover, is among the few true surprises. Here, Westerberg plays the traditional kids' song like the rock and roll equivalent of Paddy McAloon's "FarmYard Cat". It's a silly joy that's far from a throwaway, as it shows that Westerberg can convey a fatherly, grown-up sort of happiness through his music.
In Westerberg's own lyrics, the joy arrives in spades that his "hand" is never holding. When he sings about love ("I'm the only lie worth telling / I'm in love with you") and relationships ("Let's not belong together"), the outlook is so grim that it borders on facade. While Graham Parker, Lou Reed and Elvis Costello have all invited phases of domesticity and bliss into their works, Westerberg can't avoid the sad ending. In "Two Days Til Tomorrow", the closest thing to a celebration of marriage, the man asks, "Will you marry me?" ("I'm pretty sure that three or four / Words I've never said before / Sit on my knees, all nice and neat in a row") just to keep the woman around ("I knew from the start / That you weren't right / For me / But here I go / Saying / Baby, please don't go"). Basically, Westerberg remains in the unsatisfied mood of his youth, so it seems odd when people complain about how he and his music has changed. If anything, he's too much of the same sensitive kid who speaks for a whole generation of discontents ("We may well be the ones / That set this world on its ear / We may well be the ones / If not, then why are we here?"). He's still singing for outsiders, exalted in "Androgynous", who have grown up to cry, "Why not another Hootenanny? Why not another brain-dead 'Run It'?"
Because a Westerberg song has always been, first and foremost, about the lyrics, it's unsettling that he's unable or just unwilling to convey other sensations that help complete the human experience (fatherhood, and a genuine sense of love and peace). This limited breadth of emotion marks another separating characteristic between Westerberg's songs and those of Guy Clark. While Clark's body of work captures a reasonably full picture of a man, Westerberg's beautifully rendered songs only paint parts of an inner life, where new songs of despair layer themselves over old songs of despair. Eventually, you wonder if your passion for Westerberg's music is partly a perverse desire to find an excess of misery and disenchantment.