Because we all loved THE REPLACEMENTS so, there's been a tendency to go soft on criticizing Westerberg's two solo LPs-as well as the final two, mostly disappointing Replacements LPs, the last of which, All Shook Down, being a thinly disguised head start on his solo career. One thing that was never suggested, since it seemed so inconceivable once, is that the underground icon might have lost his Midas writing touch. This is understandable, since unlike others, Westerberg has never flat-out sucked. He's not guilty of producing appalling works, of fouling the nation's CD bins with more schlock from one-time heroes. But it is also true that Westerberg has been underachieving for over a decade now. His last truly brilliant batch of songs was Pleased to Meet Me, and that was 1987! But now here's Suicaine Gratification, and finally, Westerberg comes close to getting it right. If not on the level of the first six Replacements albums, it is the first that feels comfortable and unforced since, and the first genuinely good one. As if he has finally shucked the shackles of being America's one-time garage-rock god, half of this heads for the little territory that worked on 1993's 14 Songs and 1996's Eventually, the quiet, personal, simply-recorded acoustic or piano tunes. No more half-hearted rockers with half-assed hooks (even without being compared to one of the best American bands of the '80s). He didn't need TOMMY & BOB STINSON and CHRIS MARS to record achingly sad, wise-beyond-his years, by-himself '81-'87 classics such as "If Only You Were Lonely," "Within Your Reach," "Answering Machine," "Here Comes a Regular," and "Skyway," and that approach still seems so affecting 12-18 years later on similarly-conceived songs here. For instance, check out the first two and the final two songs. The opening "It's a Wonderful Lie" restores that combo of well-considered words and evocative guitar chords that made the unplugged Westerberg such a wünderkind. And "Self-Defense" and the closing "Bookmark" are charming piano songs, his playing as loose as it is intensely forlorn. Meanwhile, the few full-band rockers may still lack great choruses or unusual verses-still a little too average for a writer of this repute-but they seem less forced, less trying to prove he can still do it pushing 40. (Having the master of discretion JIM KELTNER on drums helps.) And when the piano is matched with only quiet drums, a violin, and an acoustic together, the result, "Born For Me" and "Actor in the Street" are gems of hushed-'Mats proportions!!!! Overall a rather sweet LP. If he never gets all the way back, he's close enough now, and he's justified his continued presence on the scene.