In what passed for music clubs on the flat-landscaped campuses of the midwest, college students of the ’80s were lucky enough to have three top choices for notorious bar bands from Minneapolis. The Replacements would likely steal your girl while edging you into a bar fight. Hüsker Dü would crank everything up to 11 and leave you with tinnitus. And Soul Asylum would just bum a smoke and attempt to entice you into a drunken rendition of “Seasons In The Sun.” For a lot of reasons, that latter band frequently seemed overshadowed by the other two, seeing as they all started on indie labels (Twin/Tone and SST), were from the same area, and had a similar rock-punk-pop (or the other way around) sound. All wound up going major label eventually, and that’s where their fates veered dramatically.
Soul Asylum—singer/songwriter/guitarist Dave Pirner, songwriter/lead guitarist Dan Murphy, bassist Karl Mueller, and original drummer Grant Young—fared the major-label jump better than most. Their first such release didn’t really take (Hang Time on A&M in 1988), even though it was the band’s best-ever record. After the next A&M album, 1990’s And The Horse They Rode In On, failed to take off, the label dropped the band. Undaunted, they bounced back with a few seminal videos on their first Columbia release, 1992’s Grave Dancers Union, which lifted the outfit from bar-band to larger arena status. The less-successful Let Your Dim Light Shine fumbled in 1995, despite a few radio-ready cuts like “Misery” and “Just Like Anyone.” And just like with those other midwesterners, the further Soul Asylum went on, the more they smoothed their rougher edges, until the polish of 1998’s Candy From A Stranger brought the band to a hiatus (despite another potential single, “I Will Still Be Laughing”). Some best-of compilations and live albums persisted until Soul Asylum came back together in 2004 (with new drummer Michael Bland) to raise funds for bass player Karl Mueller’s battles with cancer (he died in 2005). This led to the band’s acutely titled 2006 release The Silver Lining, with Replacement Tommy Stinson signing on as bassist, and Columbia finally dropping the band after the album’s middling reception. Still, Soul Asylum kept chugging away to release 2012’s Delayed Reaction, its best record in years. Then Dan Murphy left the band for the first time, leaving Dave Pirner as the sole remaining charter member.
The latest version of Soul Aslyum finds Pirner still at the helm, with drummer Bland, Justin Sharbono on lead guitar, and Winston Roye on bass. On the band’s new album Change Of Fortune, released on March 18, first single “Supersonic” sounds both smoother and more electronic than years past, but still catchy as all-get-out, while “Don’t Bother Me” finds the band still swimming somewhere in the alt-country pond, as Pirner tries to make the case that, “These are better days than yesterday.”
That sentiment is unsurprising, as in the 30 years that Soul Asylum has been around, its optimistic songs continually attempted to appeal to the best in everyone: Don’t grow up, but if you have to grow up, don’t sell out. In honor of the band’s new album, we have pulled together the perfect 60 minutes of Soul Asylum thus far. We’re not including well-known tracks like “Misery,” or “Black Gold,” or “Runaway Train,” because those are the songs that made the band famous. But to know only those radio songs is really, not to know Soul Asylum at all. So we’re taking a deeper dive into the band’s back catalog. From its scratchy beginnings to its more middle-of-the-road radio efforts, Soul Asylum, for all its faults, was always trying to teach you valuable life lessons, framed by an irrepressible singer, some goofy wordplay, and the hookiest guitar licks around.
1. “Cartoon” (1988)
Actually, if you want to chuck this whole Power Hour and just listen to Hang Time, feel free. It is a perfect rock record. One of its many, many high points was this anti-slacker classic, probably the best example of Soul Asylum’s stirring speeches: “Did it almost make you feel like something’s gotta happen soon / When you wake up feeling lost in your own room.” Pirner and Murphy share lead vocal, aiding the song’s anthemic feel, as they caution, “If you’re crying in your beer, you’re gonna drown.” You’ll be off the couch before the song’s even over.
2. “Barstool Blues” (1989)
Soul Asylum got its start when Bob Mould asked the band to open for Hüsker Dü on the Flip Your Wig tour; it then began headlining by playing at any club that would have them. That prolonged effort turned Soul Asylum into one of the best (albeit beer-soaked) live acts around, full of fun crowd-singalong covers like “Rhinestone Cowboy.” The band was a little more particular about its recorded cover efforts, so the ones that exist (like “To Sir With Love”) say a lot about the band. In 1989, a bunch of groups recorded an album of Neil Young covers to benefit his school The Bridge. Soul Asylum got the coveted leadoff track with “Barstool Blues,” a jangly rock confection perfect for the band, who sounded like they were falling off a barstool most times anyway. When Pirner sings, “And I could live a thousand years before I know what that means,” you believe him.
3. “Somebody To Shove” (1992)
A constant across every single Soul Asylum album is that the band always knew how to kick off a record. Every leadoff track is superior, without fail. For its second try at a major-label debut, the outfit pulled no punches with “Somebody To Shove,” which basically amounts to a lovelorn Pirner waiting by the phone (“All the difference in the world is just a call away”). A classic example of the wordplay Pirner loves to tool around with (“I want somebody to shove me”), the Def Leppard guitar riff and bouncy, irrepressible beat make it inconceivable that this single didn’t land as hard as “Runaway Train” eventually did.
4. “Freaks” (1986)
Possibly the greatest of all those aforementioned leadoffs: “Freaks” combined a guitar hook you could hang a hat on, with the band’s heartwarming message that there’s nothing wrong with being a freak: “All these new things / I bought them used.” Grant Young’s drumbeat never varies as a couple of dueling sing-song guitars fight for weird prominence. “Freaks” is an early example of what pushed a lot of these Soul Asylum cuts ahead of their contemporaries’: They crafted hooks worthy of pop songs and plunked them into hard-rock tracks. The combination is downright irrepressible, and “Freaks” is a shining example.
5. “We 3” (1990)
And The Horse They Rode In On is a vastly underrated album, best-known as the release that got the band dropped from A&M. For the diehard fan, it’s far better than its reputation. “We 3” is a ballad-like story-song about the classic adage of being infatuated with someone else’s girl, but Pirner, emotive vocalist that he is, brings unbridled pathos and vulnerability in this smaller song (“She’s just like a book I’m too farsighted to read”).
6. “All The King’s Friends” (1990)
To close out the Horse album, the band brilliantly segues from the sweetness of “We 3” to the vitriol of “All The King’s Friends,” a rage-fueled album ender, lest you worry that major-label life had softened the band members up. Pirner goes to a fairy-tale parable to discuss leaders and followers—“There was a time and there was a place”—buoyed by some head-banging guitar.
7. “Closer To The Stars” (1986)
Pirner and the band later recorded an acoustic version of this early classic, but the original is still a superior tour de force, as his voice soars confidently above a bombastic drum beat and joyful guitars that refuse to let you drag them down. Here are some of those life lessons again: “Let me give you a big tip / Yesterday you were too young / Tomorrow you will be too old / To regret all the things you’ve done.” There are references to drugs and fashion magazines, and an unsubtle (per usual) moral that you need to hang on to yourself while you’re reaching for the stars in a big way.
8. “Take It To The Root” (1988)
When Soul Asylum got signed to A&M, the band members were so excited that they soon released the Clam Dip And Other Delights EP, which had one of the great rock covers of all time: A takeoff on the cover of A&M founder Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream And Other Delights, which featured a naked girl frosted with whipped cream, the band covered bassist Karl Mueller in clam dip. There’s scarcely a misstep on this fun EP, with the throbbing “Just Plain Evil,” or the pure pop of “Chains,” but for our purposes here, the funky “Take It To The Root” does the best job of capturing the band’s raucous live personality in studio. All four band members are credited with the songwriting, as things deconstruct in a varying overlap of solos, and Pirner yells out, “Take it to the root four times, oh my God!” then probably falls over.
9. “Can’t Even Tell” (1994)
Clerks and Soul Asylum shared a ragged indie sensibility, so the band fits right into the movie’s convenience-store soundtrack. When Randal tells Dante, “You’re closed” at the end of the movie, Soul Asylum’s guitars kick in straightaway, into a familiar yarn about wanting to make your life better, but having no idea how to go about it. Pirner yells endearingly, “I know you want to know how I feel / I can’t even tell.” The Kevin Smith-directed video saw the band invading the Clerks convenience store, then kicking ass at hockey. Fun fact: Soul Asylum fan Smith later had Pirner score 1997’s Chasing Amy.
10. “Bitter Sweetheart” (1995)
The star power of Claire Danes fueled the high-level video of “Just Like Anyone,” and that cut is a classic Pirner story-song about the girl who couldn’t fit in, because she was meant to stand out. The Let Your Dim Light Shine release tried but failed to sell “Anyone” and “Misery’ as the worthy followups to “Runaway Train” and “Black Gold.” So what got lost on that album was a fun ditty like the country-tinged “Bitter Sweetheart,” with another joyous sing-songy chorus belying some fun wordplay: “Are you in there, are you beating / Beating me up ’til I’m bleeding,” as Murphy’s and Pirner’s voices again blend perfectly on the swingy chorus.
11. “Never Really Been” (1986)
The A.V. Club’s own Jason Heller pointed to Soul Asylum’s many ties to alt-country (“Bitter Sweetheart” is a fine example), and the band has several cowboy tracks that make this connection crystal clear. Here’s an early one to be sung around a campfire, complete with a Roy Rogers drum beat, and acoustic strings that slowly build to powered-up electric chords. As always, Pirner is going to try to get your ass out of your ass self: “Where will you be in 1993 / Still sitting that same chair?”
12. “Marionette” (1988)
A piano-guitar leadoff kicks off another ode to one of the band’s many lost female characters; then the guitar leaps off to ape a freight train in a lament to a girl trapped in an untenable position, a precursor to “Just Like Anyone” (“They cut off your wings and replaced them with strings”). The music can save her if she’ll only let it, as all the instruments and full-force vocals come back around for the anthemic chorus, enough to stir even a puppet into action.
13. “Sexual Healing” (1993)
Another classic cover, Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” started out as a drunken live Soul Asylum sendup, and turned into a tour de force for Pirner, as the rest of the band does a decent impression of a Motown outfit cranking it up. Released on the 1993 compilation No Alternative, this cut did as well as any to try to sell part of what made Soul Asylum such an awesome live draw: Namely the unbridled chemistry and perfect rock vocals of Pirner, singing the most seductive song there is.
14. “Made To Be Broken” (1986)
Another cowboy song, sung with a country accent that belies the band’s midwestern roots. A guitar lick stolen straight from the O.K. Corral punctuates the belief that “A guitar is a man’s best friend / And these rules were made to be broken” as the band effortlessly weaves twang and thrash.
15. “Gravity” (2012)
Boding well for the new release, 2012’s “Gravity” was the band’s best song in years, which unfortunately didn’t get a lot of attention on Delayed Reaction. Pirner and Murphy wisely return to their anthem roots, with some spirited guitar lines soaring upward, fighting the song title. Pirner, somehow, after all those years of screaming, sounds as strong and compelling as he did in 1986, and the band’s momentum never drops, delivering signature bumper-sticker lines like, “Live like you want to live.”
16. “Sometime To Return” (1988)
Hang Time’s third track, penned by Pirner, is nothing less than triumphant. It’s kind 0f a love story between two fucked-up people, who despite the fact that they frequently wake up on the floor, are doing the best they can. “Sometime To Return”’s vibrant through-line defeats this fucked-up mess, with the band at absolute peak form and Murphy’s spirit-raising guitar solo. (And this month, “My destination sometime to return” is a threat the band, or Pirner, at least, is making good on.) If you leave this band and Power Hour with nothing else, hang onto these haunting, pleading lines by Pirner: “Get up and do something / No time to choose it / Do it, do it, do it, do it, do iiiiiittttt.”
Total time: 59:32