"Fifteen years later, caught in time's incinerator/ Yesterday's worries are today's/ But the good times are so near, just sitting back and drinking beer/ You know I'm halfway down the road, but I know that I still ain't there."
If I mention the band Soul Asylum, you’re bound to respond, “Runaway Train.” It’s an almost Pavlovian response in most people, largely because in 1993 and for most of ‘94 you heard that song roughly 100 million times. It was everywhere. They played it at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, and the song – and its public-service-message video – seemed to reflect the ethos of a generation’s coming of socio-political consciousness. Of course, when you hear that song on the radio now, you change the station, because that shit is going to stick in your head, like, all day.
When I entered high school in 1991, I gravitated towards a loose coterie of flannel-clad, shaggy haired kids who, like me, played instruments (back in the day when teenagers actually started rock bands). The older kids in this group introduced me to groups that upon first listen blew me away and who I still love today: the Minutemen, the Replacements, Naked Raygun. But of all these worthy outfits, they loved one above all others: Soul Asylum.
Soul Asylum’s stage banter, transcribed off scratchy bootleg cassettes, became the unofficial lingo of our clique, and I learned the lingo mostly just to understand what was being said. But when it came to their adoration of Dave, Dan, Karl, and Grant, I really, really just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Soul Asylum were weird and kind of hokey, veering casually between Hüsker Dü and Al Green, playing earnest straightforward rockers followed by weird free-jazz story songs like “Artificial Heart.” It just didn’t make much sense to me.
And then Grave Dancer’s Union came out in 1992. At first, our little group praised Soul Asylum’s major label debut. But it quickly became clear that the curse of success would affect Soul Asylum as poorly as it had the other indie bands grappling with major label sell-out syndrome. Ironically, in hindsight, it may have been Soul Asylum’s eclecticism that was their downfall. It’s only speculation, but it seems feasible that Columbia Records, unsure of how to market a band that fluctuated so wildly in tone and approach, insisted on branding the band in a singular style, that of the album’s second single, “Runaway Train.” The similar-sounding “Black Gold” was pushed as the third single. And the first single, the electric opening track “Somebody to Shove” (which was far more representative of who Soul Asylum had been as a band) was virtually withdrawn from playlists.
With Grave Dancer’s Union, we were given a new version of Soul Asylum: the band as earnest, message-bearing rockers, a Midwestern U2 in shredded jeans. Dave Pirner dropped his girlfriend of many years to date (ever so briefly) one Winona Ryder, just as her movie, Reality Bites (in which Pirner cameos), was effectively commodifying what Richard Linklater had given name to just four short years before with Slacker.
So I effectively stopped thinking about Soul Asylum, as did most everyone else. They did a pretty popular and entertaining cover of Victoria Williams’ “Summer of Drugs” for a tribute album. Grant left and was replaced with a studio drummer. They released another album to the widespread disinterest of a culture that had moved on to the loathsome “ska era.” The magic, ever elusive, was gone. They were dropped by their label after another album failed. Karl got cancer and eventually died. They inexplicably still release albums every five years or so, though it is unclear who, aside from close family members, listens to them.
Throughout this ignoble fall from grace, I kept in my car a brutalized, overplayed bootleg of Soul Asylum live in Ann Arbor, MI. This I excused as proof of the oft-cited defense that Soul Asylum, say what you will, had been one of the best live bands ever. But the truth is that I really loved the songs in that set. Mostly a sampling of the band’s A&M era albums, Hang Time and And The Horse They Rode In On, there's also a smattering of examples of the band’s talent for surprising covers. There’s a grinding, stomping cover of “I Put A Spell On You” that’s virtually screamed from beginning to end. There's the comically tender cover of “To Sir With Love.” The set ends with the 11 minute medley “James at 16,” which highlights the best of ‘70s radio, segueing from stadium rock into frantic disco and ending with a surprisingly touching, un-ironic rendition of the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”
II. The Albums
Say What You Will Clarence...Karl Sold the Truck (Twin/Tone, 1984)
Earlier this year, I found a copy of Soul Asylum’s debut Say What You Will Clarence...Karl Sold the Truck in a box of cassettes being put out on the street. And seeing as how it was free, I picked it up. To my surprise, I found myself listening to it over and over again. In their first incarnation, circa 1984, Soul Asylum is a band solidly under the influence of early Replacements. Even the album’s title is evocative of the Replacements' equally wordy first release, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash. The album is also clearly standing in the shadow of that other great post-hardcore Minneapolis band, Hüsker Dü, which isn’t surprising seeing as Bob Mould produced it.
Say What You Will is raw and noisy, with brilliant flashes of melody, especially on songs like “Long Day" and “Broken Glass.” On "Stranger" one hears a rust-belt city’s homage to Motown, saxophone swooning over grim depictions of city life. The recording might sound a bit dodgy to modern ears, but low-fi production values can be synonymous with authenticity and a time when bands used to record entire albums in a matter of hours. And this plays to Soul Asylum’s strength of churning out live, energetic rock. This chance encounter convinced me that there was more to salvage from the band’s back catalogue.
Advice: Pick it up if you can find it and don’t mind garage-quality production. It’s out of print and badly needs to be remastered.
Made to Be Broken (Twin/Tone, 1986)
Made to Be Broken’s production values are better than Say What You Will’s, but without smoothing over the rough edges which gave early Soul Asylum their charm. “Can’t Go Back,” the album’s third track, shows off the band’s ability to harmonize vocally without sounding like a barbershop quartet. Like many of the songs on this record, the lyrics point to the age-old conflict of youth, feeling like one’s life is wasting away but being unable/unwilling to do anything about it. On “Never Really Been,” Pirner poses the ironically prophetic question, “And where will you be in 1993? / Still sitting in the same chair?” Sadly, by 1993 Soul Asylum were both at the height of their popularity and losing their souls.
The strange coincidence of this band is that they so consistently predict the corrupting influences of success only to fall prey to those same influences themselves. On “Ain’t That Tough,” a personal favorite, Pirner, although he is undoubtedly referring to the lack of success Soul Asylum was having in 1986, aptly responds to critics of Soul Asylum’s later success when he croons in the chorus, “I didn’t turn out the way you thought I would be/ No, you can’t take that out on me.” It’s true. We can’t.
Advice: It might take a few listens, but this is a good place to begin.
While You Were Out (Twin/Tone, 1986)
Following Made to Be Broken in quick succession later the same year was While You Were Out. After listening to this album a few times, I feel fairly confident in saying that it was recorded the day after a night of cheap booze and Cheap Trick. A single propulsive force moves through the eleven tracks. Each tune is packed so tight with riffs that at times it’s a little overwhelming. If there is any criticism of this album, it's this: it is so ambitious that it gets a little murky, like they’re trying to do so much they occasionally leave the audience behind.
Telling both of their thrift store aesthetic and of their unabashed love of ‘70s guitar rock, the opening track “Freaks” comes together around the “different and defiant” mantra, “They’re laughin’ at you/ Talkin’ about you/ All these new things/ All these new things/ I found them used.” This is followed by the catchiest number on the album, “Carry On.” While tracks like “Crashing Down” and “The Judge” are solid mid-album burners, the single that always gets pulled from this album is “Closer to the Stars.” Personally, I find that the first lyric on the song kind of ruins it for me. Pirner can write some godawful lyrics, of which I submit for your consideration: “Caterpillar crawling up the big phone pole / Is there somebody that you want to talk to?” At his best, he creates borderline mad lib prophecy, colliding clichés into each other until they show some new truth. But sometimes, as seen above, it skews goofy. However if you can gloss over the occasional flat one-liner, it’s well worth it, as this, musically, is the band’s masterpiece.
Advice: Buy it tomorrow, stick it in your car stereo, and break your car stereo so you can’t get it out.
Hang Time (A&M, 1988)
Hang Time came in 1988 on a new label, Soul Asylum having moved on from Twin/Tone to the greener pastures of A&M, making this album technically their first major label release. It’s not surprising, then, that the production is way cleaner on this album. It’s also paced better than While You Were Out. Finally, the band is also obviously writing to produce singles.
As a new found fan of the first three albums, it is with this album that Soul Asylum start to fall out of my favor. To use their own words, they’re “a little too clean.” Nonetheless, their quest to write great stand-alone songs continues, and this album has some of their best singles. “Sometime to Return” is probably the quintessential Soul Asylum song and it's a delight. “Cartoon” is straight up classic rock written ten years too late. “Marionette” is infectious and up-beat. The problem is all the stuff in between. There’s a lot of George Thorogood-esque “bloozey” stuff (which, for me, is not a good thing), found here on tracks like “Down on Up to Me,” “Jack of All Trades,” and the CD-only “bone-us” track “Put the Bone In.” Also, there’s this creepy ballad smack dab in the middle of the album, “Endless Farewell,” and the equally weird folk-jam “Twiddly Dee.”
Advice: Forgo the album and buy the singles on this one.
And the Horse They Rode in On (A&M, 1990)
As far as I’m concerned, much the same can be said of Soul Asylum’s fifth and final “independent” album, And the Horse They Rode in On. Download “Spinnin’,” “Nice Guys Don’t Get Paid,” and “Gullible’s Travels.” The best song on the album is “Easy Street.” The rest of the collection has its moments, but keep in mind this is a band on the verge of writing “Runaway Train,” and those same excesses are beginning to make themselves seen here. Also, that eclecticism I was praising earlier feels here like something of a contrivance.
Advice: Heed the advice I gave about Hang Time.
Soul Asylum were a great band that stopped being a great band. It’s not entirely their fault; you can’t blame them for wanting to succeed. And in the end it’s a question of the chicken and the egg: Were they ruined by their success, or were they successful because they started to lose their roguish flare, thereby ruining themselves?
And it’s a shame, because when Soul Asylum were young and playing to the back of the bar, they were unstoppable. When they were writing songs because they were geeking out over Thin Lizzy riffs, they wrote amazing stuff. When they were playing to the twenty other guys in the room, when they were playing with something to prove, they brought it consistently. They wrote an astonishing amount of good music in a six-year period. If only they had left well enough alone.