By late 1984, the Replacements were transforming from a shoddy Minneapolis barroom punk band into the biggest prospect in the underground alternative rock scene. They had just released their third album, Let It Be, a title that both paid homage to and took the piss out of the Beatles, which, you could say, basically summed up the Replacements’ whole thing. Whereas the Mats always hated things like parents and school and loved things like beer and getting fucked up, Let It Be offered a wider range of dynamics, tempos, and chord progressions in its nuanced songs about gender, longing, and frustration. (This was amid the joke songs about tonsils and boners.) The perfect “I Will Dare” adopted the jangle-pop shuffle coming out of the UK, the smokey “Androgynous” is glam rock without the stomp, and the spare coda, “Answering Machine,” is a yearning electric folk song, essentially the first solo Paul Westerberg track ever recorded under the banner of the Replacements.

Except for rock purist Steve Albini, who loved their snotty lo-fi records but soon found the Replacements “irrevocably lost in the maudlin cabaret of Westerberg’s folk music blatherings,” critics adored Let It Be, ranking it No. 4 in that year’s Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll. It sold well, attracted offers from major labels, and has long been regarded as, if not the best Mats album, then the most authentic Mats album. It was the pivotal moment before they “went pop” and signed to Sire, before unhinged guitarist Bob Stinson was drastically sidelined, before Westerberg took the reins of the Mats and set out to launder the strains of traditional pop through his drunken band of losers. Let It Be was a live wire, the product of four childhood friends who never graduated high school or got driver’s licenses, whose innate talent was matched only by two things: their fear of success and their desire to drown that fear in a case of Schlitz.

In comes this essential reissue of the Mats’ fourth album, 1985’s Tim, to trouble the entire narrative. The toast of this box set—which, like Let It Be, also cribs its name from a far more successful album—is an unbelievable new remix of Tim that doesn’t just challenge the notion that Let It Be was the Replacements at their peak, but usurps it to become the best and most definitive album in their catalog. Helmed by famed Ramones engineer Ed Stasium, the remix is jaw-dropping: Gone is Tim’s muddy sound, the tinny reverb on Chris Mars’ drums, and the thin low-end that masked Tommy Stinson’s bass. Every instrument is louder and closer, the mix is much more spread out, Westerberg’s sneakily complicated rhythm playing and chord voicing comes into sharp focus, and there are even a few extra Bob solos. If the previous treatments of Pleased to Meet Me and Don’t Tell a Soul were welcome surprises, this is the holy grail that fans have dreamt of. Finally, no more of the obligatory caveats about production that have plagued the album for almost four decades.

It’s now abundantly clear, both in sound and performance, that Tim is really among the best albums ever recorded…ex post facto. It’s the apex of the Mats, how they should have sounded, how they did sound, how they should be remembered sounding. As diverse as it is dynamic, Tim is full of diamond-sharp songs about the mess of young love, old love, loneliness, dead-end jobs, amphetamines, and alcohol. Rarely does a remix raise a crucial epistemological question about a small Midwestern rock band who would stumble through a bunch of pop and country covers if the audience asked them to play their “pussy set,” but here we are: Should this new remix be considered the real and definitive version of Tim?

Like the CIA one day revealing who really and definitively killed Kennedy, I’d argue it’s complicated. Here is the self-fulfilling prophecy of the Replacements: They were drunks and losers because their press releases said they were drunks and losers. So they wore the mask, played the clowns, and became lost in the version of themselves that got banned from SNL, didn’t play ball with the label, showed up wrecked to gigs, put out a mix of Tim that the band themselves didn’t much like, sabotaged their career at every turn, and by the late ’80s softly melted into a Westerberg solo project. Even if Westerberg thought he could be as big as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones—or even contemporaries who caught major label deals like R.E.M.—there was always some Midwestern fatalism dragging him down. He led a band caught in a perpetual cycle of fear, self-loathing, drinking, and destruction that amassed a cult fan base who loved them precisely because of this cycle. If you saw a Mats show, you knew they weren’t ever going to be superstars, but a part of you knew that the Mats were right and everyone else was wrong.

The reason this Let It Bleed Edition tastes bittersweet is not because of what should’ve been, but what could never have been. The box set—which also features a re-mastering of the original mix, demos from an aborted session with Westerberg’s hero, Big Star’s Alex Chilton, a pretty good live set recorded at Chicago’s Metro, and extensive liner notes from Mats biographer, archivist, and compatriot Bob Mehr—is another path not taken by a band defined by and loved for its wrong decisions. The Replacements were so innately talented and alluring that they should have been playing arenas and climbing the charts every year, but then they wouldn’t have been the Replacements. Tim, especially this remix of Tim, offers a painful glimpse at a butterfly effect, one where the Mats were maybe slightly more put-together, had a slightly larger audience, and Westerberg was slightly more recognized as one of the best songwriters of his generation.

Among Westerberg’s afflictions were his congenitally malformed pinkies, a condition called clinodactyly, which forced the self-taught guitarist to write in open tunings. There was also something wrong with the ulnar nerves in his arms that caused him pain every time he bent his elbows, which prevented him from being too showy of a player. His infamously excessive drinking aggravated his pleurisy—the same chronic illness Tennessee Williams gave to the frail young Laura Wingfield in his 1944 play The Glass Menagerie—which shredded the singer’s voice just as it was borne from his inflamed lungs. But chief among Westerberg’s afflictions was being a burnout punk who loved the ornate elegance of pop music and the slick sound of ’70s AM Gold.

“Little Mascara,” an underrated song toward the end of Tim, is a blueprint for modern pop songwriting, worthy of rigorous study by anyone looking to understand what gives a pop song momentum and what keeps a listener engaged from measure to measure. Inspired by Southern gothic stories like those of Williams and Flannery O’Connor, “Little Mascara” was the first fictional character study in the Mats catalog. The bouncy mid-tempo number describes a struggling mother pining for the love she deserves from the deadbeat father, left always with only a little mascara running down her cheek.

But the beauty of “Little Mascara” is what’s under its hood. The intro is retrofitted to become the chorus, the second verse is half as long as the first (the canny move of songwriting committees everywhere), each pre-chorus is different, and each chorus ends better than the one before it: the first circles back to the verse, the second modulates into the bridge, and the third finally pays off with the climax. It’s the kind of thing that Carole King or Quincy Jones or Jack Antonoff would marvel at, and that’s just a few of the 50 tiny choices in “Little Mascara” that give it this narrative propulsion—a beginning, middle, and end just like the short story Westerberg tells in its lyrics.

The Ed Stasium remix of “Little Mascara” also contains the most drastic change from Tommy Ramone’s original mix. The outro is a whole minute longer, stretching out the climax into the fireworks of a lost Bob Stinson guitar solo. Bob, who still worked part-time as a line cook and would send out for drugs the few times he was in the studio, only ended up on a handful of Tim songs. The two written for Bob were once thought of as the album’s weakest: “Lay It Down Clown” and “Dose of Thunder,” the former about how Peter Buck of R.E.M. liked to score speed, the latter about scoring speed more generally. Once neutered and non-committal, the pair of rockers now sounds exciting and full-throated (and fascinatingly bizarre, like how “Lay It Down Clown” suddenly modulates keys in the chorus). For every attempt at sublime control on Tim, the Replacements—and specifically Bob—were still in danger of going off the rails.

The tension between danger and vulnerability is the crux of Tim. On the other side of the spectrum there’s “Swingin Party,” a wry, loungey ballad inspired a little by Rodgers and Hart, Nancy Sinatra, and a lot by Buffalo Springfield’s “Flying on the Ground.” (In Bob Mehr’s 2016 indispensable biography Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, Westerberg said of this song, “If you steal from everybody, nobody can put a finger on you.”) It’s become one of their biggest “hits” in the streaming era, thanks in part to Lorde’s version, a formidable match for Westerberg’s gothic humor. There’s also the unsparing “Here Comes a Regular,” the wrong kind of drinking song. Channeling the stasis inside local Minneapolis bars, Westerberg reluctantly recorded the track alone and cloistered away behind the studio’s sound bafflers. It’s cold and cutting, maybe the first time the mask of the Replacements really came off.

What remains so great about Tim, and is emphasized over and over again on this new remix, is how Westerberg delivers each song as if it’s the last thing he’s ever going to do. Wrapped up in the mythos of the Replacements is the idea that these are his last chances, a few final attempts to write the arena anthem or the greatest love song of all. The opening scream on “Bastards of Young” and its chorus—the Biblically inspired, often misheard “Wait on the sons of no one”—remain an undiminished gravitational force. Westerberg loves symmetry in his lyrics, too, giving them an aphoristic quality while singing as if his mouth is filling with blood. “The ones who love us best/Are the ones we lay to rest” is quickly followed by the gut-punch: “The ones who love us least/Are the ones we’ll die to please.” But just as foundational to Tim is “Left of the Dial,” which uses a song written by an old flame fading in and out of the radio as a symbol of transience, bliss, misfortune, and resignation. “Bastards” is a last-ditch effort at winning; “Left of the Dial” is that ghostly acceptance when you lose.

The original Tommy Ramone (née Erdelyi) mix of Tim still has a lot of character, charitably speaking, as the newly remastered version included in this box set shows. It’s not that it’s unlistenable, but it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where you’d prefer to put it on over the Ed Stasium mix now. The Stasium mix sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday, like Tommy is jumping around your living room and Westerberg is spilling beer on your carpet. It ranks high among the most revelatory revisionist looks at an album, up there with the release of Iggy Pop’s 1997 mix of Raw Power, or the Beatles’ 2003 stripped-down version of Let It Be, or even Metallica’s 2018 remaster of the notoriously muddy …And Justice for All. All three of those bands tower over the Replacements by several orders of magnitude, but in the fantasy world of alternate histories, you can imagine this version of Tim growing in estimation, another perfect, pathetic twist of fate for the Mats.

Outside of the live show here—its quality somewhere between the rip-roarin’ Live at Maxwell’s 1986 and the hissy bootleg of their 1984 CBGB showcase catastrophe—the last missing piece of Tim is “Can’t Hardly Wait.” Though it eventually appeared as a suited-up standard complete with a bandstand of horns on 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me, Westerberg worked on the song all throughout Tim’s recording process and was unsatisfied with every version he tried. There are several takes and demos of “Can’t Hardly Wait” included here, including two that were previously released, and a new acoustic rendition featuring cellist Michelle Kinney, who was then the studio manager where the Mats were recording. But listening to a new alternative mix of the “‘Tim’ Version,” hearing the same vim and vigor as the Stasium mix, is devastating, like watching replay of refs blowing a call that cost your team the game. This was the single, this was the hit, the song that could maybe could have changed everything. Why did they have to lose? “Our ambition is to be the biggest worst band in the world,” Tommy Stinson once said. Here’s their very last chance.

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The Replacements: Tim (Let It Bleed Edition)