Like some things “Little Mascara” goes by unnoticed because it is frictionless. It is utopia, too good to be true. Maybe it’s more of a schematic than it is a good Replacements song. Maybe that’s why it’s perfect. It’s a perfect song. Here’s why I believe this:
The intro has its own life apart from the rest of it, like part of a theme for a sitcom that’s used in the truncated opening credits when it the show hits syndication. This is Peak Intro, like a send-up of an intro that is so obviously an intro it transcends quaint and becomes essential. This what’s known as the Jk-Not-Jk Curve of the Sublime, and this sits right at its zenith. Holding a chord like that for a measure then kicking in with the verse is such a classic rock trick, a little like AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.”
Like the best Replacements songs, it’s about moment of realization, the anagnorisis, where once there was light, now, suddenly, there is darkness and irony. Verse 1 has two stanzas, the first with the indelible “You and I fall together/ you and I sleep alone.”
The second stanza could be controversial due to of Westerberg’s phrasing. “For the moon you keep shooting” might ring as clunky backwards phrasing (c.f. “Making love to his tonic and gin”) but he does pair it with, “For the kids you stay together” which calls it a wash. Are you criticizing Prince for “Dig, if you will, the picture/ Touch, if you will, my stomach”? This may be controversial, but I put these two instances in the same category.
And then that playground melody on: “…After 1:00, and there’s one that’s long gone,” which is like a send-up of “Shave and a Haircut.” (There’s got to be an actual melody that he’s aping here, and I’ve never been able to think of it. The point is is that it’s so familiar, the inferred *clap* on 1 and the quarter notes on 2 and 3 is ur-folk, basic instinct.)
Thing to note here is how he slides down to the low dominant note on “losing is..”
And we find that the intro is actually just what’s underneath first chorus, note for note.
The greatest pop songs have propulsion. Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” is queen of this because it never stops pedaling, and it never lands on the tonic of the chord the song is in. “Little Mascara” has other tricks that keep it moving, like truncating the Verse 2 to just the first one stanza, especially when it’s just plot development here.
Continuing with the idea of propulsion, Westerberg lands on a higher note this time, on the tonic, when he sings “…losing is.”
This song is a masterclass in how to exit a chorus, and it’s a toss-up between this one and the third one for which I think is the best chorus-exit of all-time. I love that he delivers the kicker of the song here (“That you cry your eyes out”) as it modulates for what I guess you’d call the bridge. It’s totally unpredictable, and while adhering to the tenets of pop songwriting, he’s inverting it all along the way.
Great bridge that modulates back down the the original key for a great guitar solo, which takes Intro structure. Momentum is still building and building.
It brings the other kicker (“All you ever wanted was someone/ Ma’d be scared of”) the twist in the plot, the anagnorisis. And now on “…losing is” Westerberg hits the high dominant note, up the octave, with a ornament flip to the submediant. Each Pre-Chorus greater than the last.
This adds a little lead guitar line after the first “…a little mascara,” which would probably have been a saxaphone under Jim Dickenson’s rule. Westerberg mimics the melody of the Pre-Chorus 3, maximum climactic catharsis, very high in his range.
The master stroke, of course, comes when it takes the Intro structure and excises the pause altogether. Westerberg takes the triplet rhythm to sing “that you cry” without the surprise modulation, as a victory, planting the flag at the top of the building or on the moon or a first kiss finally. It’s high exaltation, fully earned.
As an outlying opinion, I don’t mind fade-outs. I think this fade-out is particularly good, only because they are trying to copy the climax over and over, to relive this moment they built, this brilliant moment, until it gets harder and harder to hear, a copy of a copy until it finally becomes blank
This is not the best Replacements song, or my favorite Replacements song, but it is the perfect Replacements song. I hope to god play it tomorrow night, when I see the Replacements for the first time in my life. I can’t wait.