Soul Asylum's Music Takes Note of the Absurdities of Life

Soul Asylum.
Soul Asylum.
Michael L. Smith

Soul Asylum is set to perform on Thursday, August 6 at Summit Music Hall with Meat Puppets. These days, casual fans know Soul Asylum more as a soft-rock band because of its 1992 hit, “Runaway Train.” But Soul Asylum, like many other Minneapolis-based bands then and now, has always resisted easy classification.

When singer/rhythm guitarist Dave Pirner first started playing with former Soul Asylum members Dan Murphy, Karl Mueller and Pat Morley, he was the drummer and the group called itself Loud Fast Rules; it could basically be considered a punk band even though Pirner had grown up playing jazz and had spent time at the venerable, now all but defunct, jazz club The Artists' Quarter.

By the time of its 1984 debut album, Say What You Will...Everything Can Happen (later titled Say What You Will, Clarence...Karl Sold the Truck), the quartet had changed its name to Soul Asylum and its music was more akin to the energetic and thoughtful power pop being performed by Replacements with a similarly energetic fervor. Legendary Minneapolis post-punk band Hüsker Dü took Soul Asylum under its wing in releasing the band's earliest material, and later brought Soul Asylum along for a 1986 tour.

The 1988 major-label debut, Hang Time, garnered the group airplay on MTV and more widely on college radio. But as with many bands of the era that stuck around, Soul Asylum found itself with a hit on Top 40 radio with “Runaway Train” from its 1992 album, Grave Dancers Union. The song wasn't too far off the band's diverse and emotionally rich songwriting palette, but for people who haven't dug a little deeper, it has become synonymous with the Soul Asylum sound.  What perhaps cemented the song in the minds of fans was the unusual and innovative music video in which the photos of missing children appear throughout.

“Tony Kaye made the video and he later made a film called American History X,” explains Pirner. “Back in those days you got video cassettes of people's reels and you'd look through them and Tony's stuff was visually stunning to me. He's British and he has a bit of a stutter and his brain is moving so visually that he can barely keep up with what's going on in his brain and he said, 'M-m-m-milk carton!' He came up with this word association with the word 'runaway' and kids on milk cartons. I thought it was a really cool idea. Even though it was a simple word association, it was thinking outside the box in terms of putting kids in the video. Through that it turned into a public service announcement and I was doing meetings with the President for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. People thought the song was about what the video was showing, but I think that's just a testament to how strong MTV was in our lives at one point.”

One thing that's often overlooked about Soul Asylum's music is that there's more than a hint of dry, understated humor informing the songwriting. Obvious hints in song titles like “Gullible's Travels” and the album titles And the Horse They Rode on On and Let Your Dim Light Shine point to the kind of humor that takes note of the absurd situations you often find yourself in. “I'm one of those people who thinks Leonard Cohen is fucking hilarious,” muses Pirner. “People associate his music with melancholy and sadness, but there is humor in there. I hope people pick that up because at the end of the day, you've got to laugh. I usually use comedy as a tool to just get through the day.”

That humor allows for a complexity and nuance of expression that has always given the music of Soul Asylum an emotional depth. Given the band's occasional bombast, this grace and delicacy of feeling can take you by surprise.

“When I came to Columbia Records, I said I didn't want to play only one kind of music,” reveals Pirner. “I wanted to have all kinds of dynamics and I wanted to dip into my Bob Dylan interests or my Sex Pistols interests or what have you. But these days I think that has leveled off. We get crowds that know what they're coming for and rock out to the rock songs and they get sentimental to the sentimental songs — they can handle more than one emotion. So I credit my crowd for that. It's not people dressed all the same that respond only to one kind of music.”

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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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