If no other band steps forward any time soon, Soul Asylum might as well serve as the textbook example (paradigm, if you will) for the powers and pitfalls, the triumph b/w tragedy of “alternative” rock in the ’90s. After spending nearly a decade making extraordinary rock’n’roll for all the best romantic reasons — to drive through snowdrifts in a drafty van, sleep on strangers’ floors, make less money than a burger-flipper, drink too much beer and admit unshakable fears and abiding depression at high volume to small crowds — Soul Asylum moved to its second major label (the first having been, in truly classic post-indie fashion, a commercial disaster) and stepped into a platinum spotlight.
Whether the quartet had to trade in its hard-won integrity or simply flash it at the door for a ticket onto the runaway escalator, the two-million copy success of Grave Dancers Union shifted Soul Asylum from underdog to sitting duck, replacing the irrational confidence of obscurity with the insecurity of fame and exchanging small audiences of patiently devoted fans for teeming masses of show-us-your-hits newcomers unaware of the band’s hard-fought history. That the music industry and radio should suddenly welcome — and then cold-shoulder — a band it had so enthusiastically overlooked for years inevitably invited suspicion regarding the quality of the records, but the lesson of all this is that shifting viewpoints are far more pernicious than shifting realities: most of the attributes used to explain Soul Asylum’s breakthrough had always been there. But it goes further than that. The idea that a band should be great until it succeeds, and then, without making any unwarranted changes in its music, become wretched and disposable suggests that people impress their expectations on records a lot deeper than they realize.
Born into a Minneapolis scene then dominated by two great bands at the peak of their artistic powers, the young Soul Asylum (formed as Loud Fast Rules) was shaggier than the Replacements and less pop-savvy than Hüsker Dü. Say What You Will, produced by the latter’s Bob Mould, culminates the band’s hardcore slop phase and introduces an awareness of country music and a nascent aptitude for difficult rhythms and vocal interplay. Beyond the sturdy melodies and taut, ’70s-informed rock energy, it intimated that hoarse singer/guitarist Dave Pirner might possess genuine talent as a hallucinatory storyteller and enigmatically confessional lyricist. (In 1988, Say What You Will was reissued on CD with a revised title and the addition of five tracks recorded for, but left off, the original album. What’s more, the version of “Black and Blue” on Clarence is not from the LP, but a 1981 memento of Loud Fast Rules’ first session.)
Indeed he did. The confident, emotionally compressed sound and material on the raw, fiery Made to Be Broken is light years better; it remains an essential Soul Asylum LP. Raging dual vocals and interwoven guitar work by Pirner and Dan Murphy, supported by new arrival Grant Young’s precise, varied drumming, make the tuneful power of “Tied to the Tracks,” “Ship of Fools,” “New Feelings” and the countryish title track shatteringly original. “Never Really Been” points up an ability to convey the same wit and energy on touching (mostly) acoustic guitar ballads and contains this quintessential Pirner self-deflating shrug: “You were thinking I was distressed about some universal press / But I was just depressed about my last pinball game.” Murphy displays his own songwriting ability on “Can’t Go Back,” while the onomatopoetic “Whoa!” explodes in a breathtaking syncopated fury of incoherent shrieking and stands as one of Soul Asylum’s funniest, most accomplished adventures.
One highlight of Time’s Incinerator — a cassette compilation of 1980-’86 outtakes (including the five songs missing from the first album that were later appended to the CD of it), covers, concert cuts and other nonsense — is a live version of James Brown’s “Hot Pants” sung by bassist Karl Mueller. Otherwise, there are a few ace studio tracks, a lot of justifiable discards and some wild bits of onstage craziness.
While You Were Out (Sides 5 and 6 in the band’s consecutively numbered oeuvre) is a disappointment that doesn’t do the songs adequate justice. The performances sound hurried and the arrangements unfinished as if they couldn’t afford the studio time. (Maybe making two albums in the same year wasn’t such a good idea.). But “Carry On,” “No Man’s Land,” “Never Too Soon,” “The Judge,” “Freaks” and “Closer to the Stars” — complex songs filled with melody, energy and intelligence — make it clear that Pirner’s writing and vocals just keep getting better. Murphy’s “Miracle Mile” is also a highlight, but the delivery here lacks the clarity and elaboration the material deserves. Whatever the group doesn’t trash on its own (like the semi-country of “Passing Sad Daydream,” which encapsulates Pirner’s ambivalent personal philosophy: “Now if you got to hate someone / Might as well hate yourself / You’ll find that you don’t deserve it / No more than anyone else”), Chris Osgood’s thin, messy production attends to.
Getting to the majors, Soul Asylum made Hang Time with the production team of Ed Stasium (Ramones, Living Colour) and Lenny Kaye (James, Suzanne Vega). Bolstered by unprecedented sonic excellence and fully considered arrangements (but hindered by a bizarrely separated drum sound and fussiness), Soul Asylum delivered a mighty riff-rocking bang riveted with typically complex rhythmic and harmonic maneuvers. The first two tracks — “Down on Up to Me” and “Little Too Clean” — wallow in heavy ’70s chunk that suggests a reverse in direction, but the record abruptly rights itself with the inspiring Clash-like pop blare of “Sometime to Return” and doesn’t again falter. Highlights include the good-luck story “Ode,” the theatrical “Marionette,” Murphy’s “Cartoon” (which contains such succinct lines as “If you’re cryin’ in your beer you’re gonna drown”), “Beggars and Choosers,” the majestically poignant “Endless Farewell” (a wistful Pirner piano lament) and the runaway intensity of “Standing in the Doorway.” (That song’s 12-inch is worth seeking out for the “James at 16” live medley on the flip: thirteen diverse covers in just over eleven minutes.) Throughout, Soul Asylum generates unrestrained power in service of great tunes, structural surprises in a typically stripped-down genre; substantial lyrics match equally intricate music while maintaining a casual, loose feel. The Hang Time CD adds “Put the Bone In,” a rude canine double entendre which the group learned, amazingly enough, from the B-side of Terry Jacks’ 1974 mushpop hit, “Seasons in the Sun.”
The six-song Clam Dip EP — whose cover shot of a nude Mueller up to his waist in party food spoofs an old Herb Alpert (the A in A&M) album sleeve — was scheduled to precede Hang Time (hence the latter’s numbering as sides 9 and 10), but didn’t. The enjoyable mixture of cover versions (Janis Joplin-by-way-of-Slade’s “Move Over,” Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero” and “Chains,” a terrific Minneapolis new wave obscurity by the Wad) and originals (including a topical labor song, “P-9,” written and first recorded to benefit striking Hormel workers) first surfaced on an English label. By the time it was released Stateside, two of the covers were removed (leaving only “Chains”), replaced by two weird SA tunes: the horror-movie “Artificial Heart” and a raving funkfest, “Take It to the Root.”
Steve Jordan (the drummer in Keith Richards’ X-Pensive Winos) produced And the Horse They Rode in On, exchanging Hang Time‘s punctilious studio finesse for a rawer, liver sound. (Ironically, he arranges a hollow, tin-can drum tone for Young’s superb playing.) The brilliant and varied material has plenty of intrinsic appeal; delicately applied guitar effects, melodica (on Murphy’s chantey-like “Gullible’s Travels”), even choral bells (on Pirner’s affecting piano lament, the romantic “We 3”) do the rest. With a chanted refrain and anti-suicide lyrics that acknowledge Cheap Trick, “Easy Street” is an instant SA anthem; “Veil of Tears,” “Be on Your Way,” “Grounded” and “Nice Guys (Don’t Get Paid),” a bizarre but moral crime fantasy, all further prove Pirner’s songwriting genius and the band’s remarkable ability to roar and sigh at the same time. A tremendous record that makes Soul Asylum sonically presentable without messing the group up. (Collectors’ note: tape, vinyl and CD all have related but different cover art.)
Hard though it may be for some to hear the music on Grave Dancers Union through its sales figures and ill-conceived videos, the record that made Soul Asylum a hot property actually follows a reasonable and credible course from And the Horse They Rode in On. “Runaway Train” is an anomaly — an exceptionally obvious acoustic ballad, slicked up like a wet road to radio-ready one of Pirner’s most programmatic down-in-the-mouth lyrics: “So many secrets I couldn’t keep / Promised myself I wouldn’t weep / One more promise I couldn’t keep.” (The EP adds live takes of “Black Gold” and “Never Really Been,” a studio cover of William Bell’s soul oldie “Everybody Loves a Winner” and an otherwise unissued acoustic original.) That the song became the group’s breakthrough hit is ironic, but it’s no indication of the nature of the album, which is otherwise not different enough from the A&M LPs to explain its disproportionate popularity or controversy.
Drawing minimal attention to his work, producer Michael Beinhorn furnished a comfortable playroom with guest musicians (organist Booker T. Jones, a string quartet, pals from Golden Smog) in which the group could do some belated growing up, and the results flow naturally from that. There are hardy melody rockers (“Somebody to Shove,” “Black Gold,” “Keep It Up,” “April Fool”), rustic folk-rockers (“Without a Trace”), power balladry (“New World”) and offbeat digressions (the thuggy noise-fest “99%,” the pretty production pop of “The Sun Maid”). Pirner’s verbiage takes typically playful form to convey an especially sincere and desperate burden: self-loathing, confusion and doubt permeate the album worse than ever. His uncertain career and an unsettled relationship keep colliding. In “Get on Out,” he poses the soon-to-be-moot question: “Could you still make it with a guy who never made it?”
Three years and a couple of lifetimes later, Soul Asylum shaped up without Young (who, it emerged, had already been replaced on Grave Dancers Union by Sterling Campbell, a former member of Duran Duran, B-52’s and David Bowie’s band). Let Your Dim Light Shine, produced by Butch Vig, bellyflops off the diving board with the clumsy “Misery” (“They say misery loves company / We could start a company / And make misery”) and contains one bewildering Tom Petty clone (“Bittersweetheart”), but otherwise gets down to the business of considering Soul Asylum Superstar with the usual measures of detached insight, churning guitar power and country funk. But here Pirner seems to be straining to sound like himself in the lyrics. Against uplifting power chords in “Tell Me When,” he demands, “When does life begin?,” only he’s not thinking of conception in any biological sense. Paying tribute to early Cheap Trick in the snarly chorus, the singer has to pinch himself in the bridge of “Hopes Up”: “Don’t know what I was hoping for / I feel like feeling better than I ever felt before.” In the closing “I Did My Best,” which models its elegiac folk-rock closely on the Band’s “The Weight,” he pays the price for feeling so good, pleading for exculpation that could be personal or public: “I did the best I could do / With all the mess that I’ve been through / What did you expect me to do?” Strange images abound — the two-headed president in “String of Pearls,” the porcelain-seated outhouse of the loud/hard “Just Like Anyone,” the jaded 13-year-old hooker of the touching “Eyes of a Child.” Greeted by knee-jerk critics’ sellout howls and found wanting by the devotees of “Runaway Train,” the album failed to match Grave Dancers‘ chart positions. Thus was Soul Asylum delivered to a place Pirner had already described in song: “Homesick for the home I never had.”
There are some worthy songs on Candy From a Stranger — “I Will Still Be Laughing,” “See You Later” and “Draggin’ the Lake” among them — but Rolling Stones veteran Chris Kimsey’s skilled production relieves the band of whatever sense of adventure remained in its music. (That said, the winsomely popped-up “No Time for Waiting” shakes the band’s foundations in ways previous digressions never did.) Soul Asylum here is a ghost of itself, a cleaned-up, straightened-out, held-down, scaled-back version that sounds like the real thing but never dares anything that wouldn’t be completely palatable to the poobahs of radio (who shrugged anyway). Pirner’s singing, especially, is toxicly careful.
The greatest hits album, which evidently signaled the end of the band’s tenure on Columbia, predictably shortchanges Soul Asylum’s TwinTone days (“Tied to the Tracks” has to represent the first three albums) in favor of the better-known subsequent work. That said, the inclusion of Victoria Williams’ “Summer of Drugs” (from the 1993 Sweet Relief tribute album to her), a pair each of live cuts and studio outtakes, and liner notes by Lenny Kaye makes it a not-inconsequential item.
For a superlative live band once capable of making a joyful calamity that could lurch happily in any number of directions, Soul Asylum is not overly well represented with documentation of that attribute. Insomniac’s Dream, six songs recorded in 1992 and 1993, has a stiff, unpleasant acoustic “Somebody to Shove” with strings, dull electric renditions of other Grave Dancers Union tunes and a polite “Never Really Been” hoedown that shows how far the band has come from its flaming youth. The full-length After the Flood has a heartwarming story — the band was asked to do a local morale-boosting show at the high school prom in a North Dakota town that had been inundated by the Red River — and spirit and program to match. Taking their responsibility to bring it seriously, SA seeded a set of their own hits with such pointed covers as “School’s Out” and “To Sir With Love” (what the chaperones made of “Tracks of My Tears” and “Sexual Healing,” however, may have been another story). Competent to a fault, the album is an expectational prism: great for those who like the famous MTV band and its whimsical ability to sing “Rhinestone Cowboy” as enthusiastically as “Runaway Train,” but a bittersweet artifact for those who remember shows that were much, much more than that.
Little was heard from the Soul Asylum camp until the tragic death of Karl Mueller from cancer at age 41 on June 17, 2005. At the time, it was announced that the band had largely completed work on its first new studio album in the better part of a decade. Shows with Tommy Stinson standing in on bass reaffirmed Soul Asylum’s commitment to continue (he ended up working on the new album as well, injecting a bit of the Replacements sound into the onetime labelmates); the release of a belated TwinTone compilation, Closer to the Stars, was entirely coincidental. The 16 tracks offer one version of the band’s pre-stardom era (omitting such essentials as “New Feelings,” “Whoa!” and “Chains” while making room for the shrill cover of Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero” left off the American edition of Clam Dip).
Guessing where Soul Asylum might be coming from on The Silver Lining would require an impossible sense of how the band sees itself. A long story with hard-won indie cred, surprising pop stardom, celebrity humiliation, scrapheap disillusion and heart-breaking mortality could lead anywhere for these (early-)40-something survivors. The strong melodies (“Bus Named Desire”), confident playing, commercial electric-acoustic-rock-pop sound, lyrics that soar and stumble (“Great Exaggerator”) are all familiar; what’s surprising is the absence of convincing passion. Maybe all the fight’s been beaten out of them; while the album doesn’t convey defeat, the we’re-all-alright reassurance of “Stand Up and Be Strong” and “Crazy Mixed Up World” set an unexpected tone. (The same can’t be said for “Success Is Not So Sweet,” which is hardly a timely revelation at this stage of the game.) Reassuringly, “All Is Well” (“…in hell”) drips with irony, and “Whatcha Need” dissects various poseurs (including the singer) with scathing wit. The topicality of “Standing Water” (Pirner lives in New Orleans) and “Lately” (inspired by a TV report on a soldier stationed Iraq) give the album a lot of its shape, as do several references to Pirner’s recent fatherhood; the fact that some of these songs were leftovers from previous projects further complicates effective analysis.