Their last great album, and also my personal favorite, even if it boasts neither the highs of Let It Be nor the consistency of Tim, and it doesn’t reach the emotional plateaux of either. Not even close on that last bit.
But great sounds abound! “Skyway” is, like another acoustic song from 1987 (the Smiths’ “I Won’t Share You” off Strangeways, Here We Come), one that I’d like to imagine can double as both a romantic number as well as the singer’s send-off to a fellow friend/bandmate; in this case, to Bob Stinson (who had left the band before Pleased to Meet Me for either substance abuse problems or creative differences) and in the Smiths’ case, to Johnny Marr right before their relationship’s dissolution (though it’s hard to imagine Morrissey giving enough of a shit about Marr to dedicate a whole song to him). The likeable chord progression on the clean acoustic guitars is a welcome shift from the preceding punk finale of “Red, Red Wine,” and I remember that “Wondering if we’ll meet out in the streets” meant a lot to me after a breakup; that feeling of hope that maybe you’ll run into the ex serendipitously on the street and be able to convince her to accept you again. Immediately after is “Can’t Hardly Wait,” featuring Alex Chilton on guitar (and invoking Chilton’s most famous song in the opening line); a wonderful slice of power pop powered by an excellent riff and buttressed by a string section and triumphant horns as Westerberg rides towards a hopeful horizon despite friends who never buy smokes and/or a religion that he’s forgotten about and that’s forgotten him.
Elsewhere, “I Don’t Know” finds Westerberg adjusting to his new lifestyle as a major label rockstar (sort of) (key moment: in response to “Our lawyer’s on the phone”: “WHAT DID WE DO NOAHHHWW?!”). And the song is the album’s most interesting: hearing Mars and Stinson whine, “I don’t know,” like a stoned Greek chorus (thanks Rolling Stone’s David Fricke!) over a baritone saxophone strut its sassy brass. “Nightclub Jitters” that follows is even better, as Paul Westerberg contemplates staying in versus going out and whether keeping up his appearances is worth it in the end over lounge jazz (“sultry smoky sound” indeed).
But as mentioned, Pleased to Meet Me might as well mark the end of their career. There isn’t anything that’ll reduce you the way “Sixteen Blue” or “Here Comes a Regular” does, because Westerberg has himself matured. And in addition to no longer helping us teenagers through to adulthood (or us adults reminisce – or more aptly, forget – about our shitty teendom) lyrically, he’s also traded punk for professional power pop (matured sonically, as it were) that’s just as often limp as it is successful. Blame the 80s’ production; the cock-rock guitar solos (ie. “The Ledge”) and Chris Mars’ sometimes lifeless drums (ie. on “I.O.U.” and “Valentine”). I mean, the power pop triptych of “The Ledge,” “Never Mind” and “Valentine” all offer surface pleasures in decent hooks, but only “The Ledge” really does anything more; I s’pose “Never Mind” has a good conclusion. Actually, I think I prefer the demo of “Birthday Gal” available on reissues than any of these three songs (and speaking of that reissue, don’t believe the people who try to claim the alternative versions of “Alex Chilton” or “Can’t Hardly Wait” are better than their studio versions. The alternative version of “Alex Chilton” sounds limp despite the plainer production and louder bass, and “Can’t Hardly Wait” removes the riff, strings and horn for a guitar chug).
Which brings me to “Alex Chilton.” I remember the first time I got my hands on this album, skipping past “I.O.U.” and the somewhat goofy cover (hardly a step-up from Tim, even if it is a “statement”) to hear one of my new favorite bands tribute one of my favorite musicians from the 70s, a man who effortlessly packaged negativity in sugar-rush songs that twisted that pessimism into optimism, or at least, an answer. And this song didn’t disappoint: a sugar-rush in itself, and one of their best in that regard. Super-hyperbolic, but the first time I ever heard “Alex Chilton” might as well have been the first time I ever heard rock music, and I remember hearing it some 400+ times that summer when I realized that if I walked from work to St. George station (one of two main transfer stations in Toronto), I could both get some additional exercise in and bypass the post-work rush hour train rides where hundreds of disgruntled people are forced to forget things like “personal bubble” and “elbow space” in a situation that would only be okay in the sweaty inebriated atmospheres of clubs (which is still unpleasant, to be honest).
I love every detail of this song: love the riff that kicks the gates down, love and internalized each of Paul Westerberg’s every “ooh”’s (the one that begins the song, and especially the one where he sings “I never travel far / without a little Big Star,” pauses, and yells “OOH” euphorically to usher the guitar solo in), love the melody in the choruses (that seems to accidentally foreshadow hipster dilettantes (“I’m in love-what’s that song? / I’m in love with that song”)), love the guitar solo, even if its professional-sound is both uncharacteristic for the band at this point in time and can be understandably off-putting, love that quick burst of supernova after “Tarot cards,” love the sunny acoustic romp at the end that leads the kids to the skateboard park. Love, love, love, love, love. Did I mention I love this song? Kind of hate that on the off-chance that someone knows who Big Star is after asking what my tattoo means or where it comes from, they usually know them because of this song/album. But I guess that’s a good thing because at least they know the Replacements?