Of all the bands to rise up from the underground rock community of the ’80s, Soul Asylum left some of the faintest musical footprints. Their music lacked the focused power of Husker Du or the eloquence of R.E.M., and the songs of lead singer, guitarist, and principal writer Dave Pirner never approached the tortured insights of the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg. Shambolic and feel-good sloppy, Soul Asylum had the college-rock spirit, sound, and look down cold, but they lacked one essential ingredient — first-rate, well-crafted tunes to take them to the next level.
A rock-textbook example of the never-say-die philosophy, the band kept plugging away and finally found a large audience with its seventh release, 1992’s Grave Dancers Union, and its major hit, ”Runaway Train.” That song was a first for Pirner in other ways — nothing less than an old-fashioned rock ballad, something Bob Seger or Tom Petty might have left on the recording-studio floor. So, it hardly comes as a shock that the band heard on Let Your Dim Light Shine) is a full-on mainstream rock band. Elements of their early style — a scrappy guitar brawl equally rooted in punk, country twang, and singer-songwriter earnestness — are still apparent. But the album has a tougher, almost metallic polish; just when the music starts to sound a little too alternative, out comes a corporate-rock power chord.
None of this is bad, since Soul Asylum is one of the few bands that have actually benefited from leaping from the indies to the big leagues. Coproduced by the band and Butch Vig, who added just the right thin layer of gloss onto Nirvana’s Nevermind, Dim Light is still full of songs that bump up and down like a horse-drawn carriage on a rocky lane. But the radio-friendly production helps rein in Soul Asylum’s excesses. The band seems perfectly at home ripping through drive-time rock such as ”Just Like Anyone” and ”Bittersweetheart” — two songs that, with their lurching drive and Pirner’s swerving-into-the-mike vocal, play to the band’s strengths. And the album’s mid-tempo strummers, which pick up where ”Runaway Train” left off, are the most lyrical ballads they’ve ever done.
Just as the band has waded into conventional rock without drowning, Pirner has learned that the simpler the idea, the better. Pirner is in his element singing slump-shouldered tales of self-doubt, self-loathing, and general anxiety like ”I Did My Best.” But while he may look and sound like someone with barely the energy to convey any words of wisdom to a younger generation, the songs are often fist-pumping rock, the last thing you’d expect from a slacker. He’s also capable of evocative phrases: ”My time has neither come nor gone/It just slips out when I yawn,” he yelps in the arena-ready ”Hopes Up,” in which his voice later dips into an Axl-like snarl.
All that progress aside, some old problems still surface, albeit in a glossier, bigger-budget context. For every tightly constructed song, another one seems as if it had been welded together from several styles. A typical Soul Asylum number (the flailing ”Caged Rat” and the first single, ”Misery,” for example) can lurch from an unplugged shuffle to a booming stadium-rock crunch to a folksy grace, making for an often jarring musical ride. At other times, the band sounds frustratingly generic; erase Pirner’s dulled-razor rasp, and Soul Asylum could be nearly any heartland rock band that mixes a little extra feedback into its homages to Tom Petty.
The touch of Americana becomes particularly cumbersome when Pirner attempts to plug into that staple of working-class rock-story-songs of blue-collar winners and losers trying to make better lives for themselves. ”Eyes of a Child” chronicles a woman with 13 children, an average guy with too many jobs, and a prostitute with a drug problem, while the wordy ”String of Pearls” aims for an almost Dylanesque surrealism. Each strains for great-American-novel breadth but ends up sounding callow and, even worse, condescending to its subjects. (Tellingly, most of the screw-ups are women, be it the hookers that haunt several of these songs or the subject of ”Tell Me When,” who can’t even find the courage to kill herself.) Pirner is equally prone to clichas. The lyrics are strewn with references like ”calm before the storm” and ”eye of the beholder.” Others sound unfinished: ”To My Own Devices,” which has the breezy lilt of ”Runaway Train,” mostly repeats its chorus over and over.
Only a true curmudgeon would begrudge Soul Asylum its success, and at best, Let Your Dim Light Shine makes the case that maturing and compromising — even only a little — can occasionally benefit art. Ultimately, the album shines a rather bright bulb upon both the band’s strengths and weak links, and leaves the switch on for the future. B