Sunday, February 24, 2019

Certain Songs #1463: Paul Westerberg – “It’s A Wonderful Lie” | Medialoper

Album: Suicaine Gratifaction
Year: 1999

From the very start, it was the slow vulnerable ones that set Paul Westerberg apart from his peers. You know, those heart-wrenching future Certain Songs that had lyrical phrases that just stuck in your heart: “If only you were lonely, I’d go home with you.” “Die within your reach.” “Love each other so androgynous.” “Am I the only one who feels ashamed?” “You take the skyway.”

But around the time of Don’t Tell A Soul’s, they started to dry up: “Rock and Roll Ghost” might have meant something to Paul, but came across as maudlin as hell to me, and while I liked “Sadly Beautiful” from All Shook Down and later on “Lush and Green” from 1997’s Grandpaboy EP, it seemed like he’d lost the balance that made those earlier songs so world-shaking.

Until, that is, “It’s a Wonderful Lie,” the devastating opening track of his final major-label album, 1999’s Suicaine Gratifaction, which starts not with any kind of crunchy electric guitar, but just Paul and an acoustic.

Get up from a dream, and I look for rain
Take an amphetamine and a crushed rat brain
How am I feelin’, better, I suppose
How am I lookin’, I don’t want the truth
What am I doin’, I ain’t in my youth
I’m past my prime, or was that just a pose?
It’s a wonderful lie, I still get by on those

Holy shit! “It’s a wonderful lie / I still get by on those” was like Paul’s much more personal version of Pete Townshend’s “It all looks fine / To the naked eye / But it don’t really happen that way at all” — a total compare and contrast between how you want the world to perceive you and how you perceive yourself.

I’ve been accused of never opening up
You get too close, then I keep my mouth shut
Gonna run to the wind, where the big bad city blows
It’s a wonderful lie, I still get by on those
It’s a wonderful lie
By on those

Recorded in one take after it came to him after he’d already left the studio for the day, Paul’s guitar & vocals were recorded in one take, with producer Don Was adding bass, Paul melodica, and Suzie Katayama overdubbing cello & accordion. But even with the extra instruments, “It’s A Wonderful Lie” remains totally unstuffed, getting by on its simple melody, Paul’s sincere vocal and, of course, the words.

So don’t pin your hopes or pin your dreams
To misanthropes, guys like me
And the truth is overrated, I suppose
It’s a wonderful lie, I still get by on those

After a decade plus of his fame not being anywhere near his talent, I think he might have also been telling his fans that he was just about over it, not to expect the world from him. Which, I think we kinda knew. So I also think that “It’s A Wonderful Lie” was a signal that he was kinda over the major label ride, even if he had signed up for it one last time.

In any event, I don’t think I was the only person thus affected by “It’s A Wonderful Lie,” as if you look in YouTube, you’ll find dozens of covers, mostly lonely dudes with guitars — because, duh — but also by people like Mary Lou Lord, so I feel like it’s kind of a weird lost classic from the exact point where even his most ardent fans were peeling away.

“It’s A Wonderful Lie”

“It’s A Wonderful Lie” performed live on Jools Holland, 1999

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