Complicated, passionate, maddening, eccentric… Westerberg’s solo years offer glimmers of brilliance, but there’s a sense the ex-Replacement is casting about for the most appropriate musical backdrop for his shaggy dog stories.
Folker, his seventh post-‘Mats record, sounds like an accident. Another lo-fi batch of songs recorded in his Minneapolis basement, it only reveals its strengths after a dozen or more plays, as its reflective tenor reveals indelible melodies. The title song is more mockery of the folk genre than homage: “You sing for yourself/You stand up to nothing/As far as I can tell,” he sings before angrily admitting, as the song whirls out of control, that he himself is “a folk star now”. In the record’s subtext, though, he toys with Woody Guthrie-style balladry on three short, one-verse interludes, and, as the record fades out, he briefly (and comically) quotes Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes?”
But while the irony of the title cut and the down’n’dirty rock’n’roll of “Gun Shy” are the most immediately winning songs precisely because of their restless underpinnings, most of Folker is given over to winsome fragility. A case in point is the cold, lonely vibe of “Looking Up In Heaven”, with a typically insinuating melody floating on a bed of sympathetic acoustic guitars. Even more gorgeous is the heart-tugging chug of “My Dad”, a show of familial affection more common to bluegrass.
The tender “What About Mine?” and “As Far As I Know”, the latter practically a page out of The Hollies’ songbook, are terrific as well, but Folker falters midway, dragged down by one too many plodding ballads. Songs of longing and regret like “23 Years Ago” display Westerberg’s most hangdog vocals, but their monochromatic sheen tempers the album’s successes. Still, Westerberg’s written more top-flight songs in the last couple of years than he has in a decade, and a record with as much heart as Folker only adds to the legacy.