Let It Be looms large among '80s rock albums, generally regarded as one of the greatest records of the decade. So large is its legend and so universal its acclaim that all the praise tends to give the impression that the Replacements' fourth album was designed as a major statement, intended to be something important when its genius, like so many things involving the 'Mats, feels accidental. Compared to other underground landmarks from 1984, Let It Be feels small scale, as it lacks the grand, sprawling ambition of the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime or the dramatic intensity of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, or if the other side of the Atlantic is taken into equation, the clean sense of purpose of The Smiths. Nothing about Let It Be is clean; it's all a ragged mess, careening wildly from dirty jokes to wounded ballads, from utter throwaways to songs haunting in their power. Unlike other classics, Let It Be needs those throwaways -- that Kiss cover, those songs about Tommy getting his tonsils out and Gary's boner, that rant about phony rock & roll -- to lighten the mood and give the album its breathless pacing, but also because without these asides, the album wouldn't be true to the Replacements, who never separated high and low culture, who celebrated pure junk and reluctantly bared their soul. This blend of bluster and vulnerability is why the Replacements were perhaps the most beloved band of their era, as they captured all the chaos and confusion of coming of age in the midst of Reaganomics, and Let It Be is nothing if not a coming-of-age album, perched precisely between adolescence and adulthood. There's just enough angst and tastelessness to have the album speak to teenagers of all generations and just enough complicated emotion to make this music resonate with listeners long past those awkward years, whether they grew up with this album or not.
All this works because there is an utter lack of affect in Paul Westerberg's songs and unrestrained glee in the Replacements' roar. Sure, Let It Be has moments where the thunder rolls away and Westerberg is alone, playing "Androgynous" on a piano and howling about having to say good night to an answering machine, but they flow naturally from the band's furious rock & roll, particularly because the raw, unsettled "Unsatisfied" acts as a bridge between these two extremes. But if Let It Be was all angst, it wouldn't have captured so many hearts in the '80s, becoming a virtual soundtrack to the decade for so many listeners, or continue to snag in new fans years later. Unlike so many teenage post-punk records, this doesn't dwell on the pain; it ramps up the jokes and, better still, offers a sense of endless possibilities, especially on the opening pair of "I Will Dare" and "Favorite Thing," two songs where it feels as if the world opened up because of these songs. And that sense of thrilling adventure isn't just due to Westerberg; it's due to the 'Mats as a band, who have never sounded as ferocious and determined as they do here. Just a year earlier, they were playing almost everything for laughs on Hootenanny and just a year later a major-label contract helped pull all their sloppiness into focus on Tim, but here Chris Mars and Tommy Stinson's rhythms are breathlessly exciting and Bob Stinson's guitar wails as if nothing could ever go wrong. Of course, plenty went wrong for the Replacements not too much further down the road, but here they were fully alive as a band, living gloriously in the moment, a fleeting moment when anything and everything seems possible, and that moment still bursts to life whenever Let It Be is played.