Sunday night, at the same time of all the tomfoolery of the VMAs, Minneapolis rock legends the Replacements returned to the stage for the first time in 22 years with a straight-up workmanlike attitude. Rather than twerking it for the boys and girls like Miley Cyrus, the Replacements busted out 23 songs at Toronto’s Riot Fest, including music spanning their whole career. Based on the videos I’ve seen, it looks like Paul Westerberg and the gang didn’t miss a hitch after the 22 year hiatus.
The reunion got me to go back to the Replacements’ wonderful catalog, and I wanted to specifically narrow in on the album closer for their masterpiece Let It Be, “Answering Machine”. By the name alone, you would think this song has totally been dated over the years of communication technology, rendering the answering machine a completely arcane device to sing about. But on “Answering Machine”, Paul Westerberg cries out with desperation and loneliness about a broken relationship that is palpable you can taste it with your ears.
Singing into the void of the answering machine static, Westerberg bleeds out with just guitar in hand over the voicemail. “How do say you’re O.K. to an answering machine? How do you say good night to an answering machine?” The song shows the grit and vulnerability that only the Replacements could pack into the same song.
The song devolves into a cacophony of answering machine greetings, dialed numbers, and disconnected calls with Westerberg’s voice and guitar getting completely lost into the technological void. The song feels particularly relevant considering we as a society are becoming more and more disconnected personally as we actually grow more and more connected technologically. Westerberg sings right to the heart of this in 1984, years before texting, Skype, Twitter, and the 200 other new forms of communication, showing regardless of the communication medium, life remain the same: full of heart and heartbreak.