SOUL SURVIVOR

BURDENED BY IMPOSSIBLE EXPECTATIONS, DAVE PIRNER ACHES TO TAKE SHELTER IN SOUL ASYLUM.

There are certain things Dave Pirner, the singer, songwriter and cover boy for Soul Asylum, would prefer not to discuss, especially at such an ungodly hour as one o'clock in the afternoon. So please, no questions about what it's like being seen by the tabloid press as Mr. Winona Ryder (People magazine subscribers know that the actress has been Pirner's steady for the past couple of years). And let's also avoid dissecting a recent Rolling Stone cover story, in which Pirner came across like a befuddled, occasionally belligerent Sylvia Plath. Instead, Pirner would rather do something fairly strange in this age of journalism-as-therapy-session--actually talk about music. As he puts it in a weary croak of a voice: "The perception of who the band is doesn't feel quite right to us somehow. We want to let people know who we really are--and I think the best way we can do that is to just go out and play for people."

It's not difficult to understand why Pirner feels frustrated by the public's current impression of his band (bassist Karl Mueller, drummer Sterling Campbell and guitarist Dan Murphy). The group is far from being a newcomer to the modern-rock scene: It made its first recording in 1984 and spent considerably more than half a decade earning generous reviews and no money prior to the commercial success of the 1992 disc Grave Dancer's Union. However, that breakthrough brought with it a new set of consequences. Hipsters, many of whom pointed out that the omnipresent single "Runaway Train" bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the work of Tom Petty, charged that the Asylum had softened up in order to cash in (Pirner's relationship with Ryder and the band's decision to dump longtime percussionist Grant Young in favor of studio pro Campbell were used by some to support this theory, too). Clearly, these grousers suggested, Pirner had gone Hollywood.

In some ways, Let Your Dim Light Shine, the latest Soul Asylum release, seems intended to counter this view. The subject matter of tunes such as the single "Misery" and album tracks "Bittersweet" and "Caged Rat" is notably dour; it's not the type of material you'd expect from someone reveling in the first flush of superstardom.

"I guess some people could see it as depressing," Pirner concedes. "It depends on how you look at it. To me, I've been doing this for fourteen, fifteen years now, and I don't analyze it too much. And I don't worry about what people think I should be writing songs about, either. I just go with the first thing that comes to my head. It's not like I go, `Well, I've got a nicer pen this time, so I'm going to write a different kind of song.'"

Pirner insists, "What's going on in my life at the time has never really been the focus of what I write songs about," but it doesn't take a great deal of imagination to find autobiography in numerous Dim Light ditties. "I Did My Best," in particular, comes across like a plea for understanding from a man who wishes that people could still see him as a normal guy--"Holed up in the dressing room without a dress/Kneeling at the confessional with nothing to confess/I knew all about my surprise party/I was spoiled and depressed/But I acted surprised and told lots of lies/Yes, I did my best." In many ways, the new platter is a disappointment: Even though it features strong production (by Butch Vig), good playing and singing, and plenty of catchy melodies, Pirner's attempts to be all things to all people makes it seem self-conscious and forced. But for anyone eager to poke and prod at Pirner's psyche, it's a treasure trove.

Things were simpler at the dawn of the Eighties, when Pirner, Mueller, Murphy and Young adopted as their moniker a prototypical punk-rock phrase: Loud Fast Rules. The switch to the Soul Asylum appellation didn't presage a shift in musical temperament, though. The long-player Say What You Will..., issued by Twin/Tone in 1984, was a sonic boom of a record so abrasive that even some punk aficionados were taken aback. It was not a big seller, but it quickly established Soul Asylum as an important part of the Minneapolis scene that spawned the Replacements and Husker Du (whose leader, Bob Mould, produced Say).

The band's reputation was solidified by a pair of Twin/Tone discs (1986's Made to Be Broken and 1987's While You Were Out) that were considerable improvements over the debut. The sound on these efforts was more focused, punchier, and Pirner was stretching out as a songwriter, even managing to toss off a couple of selections that included hints of country ("We've always been a little bit different," Pirner says). A&M came calling after that, but the association with the label turned out to be a disaster. The band deserves part of the blame; Hang Time, And the Horse They Rode In On and Clam Dip and Other Delights suffered from indifferent production and a dearth of truly memorable material. But A&M never found a way to effectively promote the combo, resulting in the easy availability of Soul Asylum material in cut-out bins everywhere. Most observers assumed that Soul Asylum would wind up on the Obscurity Express, but that was not to be. Columbia signed the group, and Grave Dancer's Union rode "Runaway Train" into the hearts and minds of the MTV nation. And while Dim Light hasn't been the kind of across-the-boards smash marketers were anticipating, it has firmly established Soul Asylum on the edge of the rock mainstream.

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