If you had any familiarity with the 90s rock scene, the name Soul Asylum should ring all sorts of bells. Need a reminder? Runaway Train won a Grammy for Best Rock Song in 1994. All together now: “Runaway train never going back/wrong way on a one way track…”
More recently, they’ve spoken up about what happened in their home city and reverberated around the world. In honour of George Floyd, drummer Michael Bland joined other Minneapolis artists to talk to Rolling Stone about racism. They band urged their fans to donate to related causes and organisations if they can, and to register to vote in the November 2020 elections (U.S. citizens abroad can register to vote at fvap.org).
As protests spread around the world, Soul Asylum released free downloadable versions of their song Black and Blue and a cover of The Dead Kennedy’s Nazi Punks Fuck Off.
What about new music? Yes, they’ve got that too. The band were in safe hands for their follow up to 2016’s Change of Fortune. Hurry Up and Wait was mastered by Grammy Award-winning mastering engineer Emily Lazar, and co-produced by long-time collaborator John Fields.
Let’s begin at The Beginning, shall we? A classic rock riff ushers in a classic college rock vocal. The narrator urges a friend to find a way back from embarrassment and withdrawal: “this is the beginning of a great adventure/now’s not the time, not the time to step aside.” It ends with the tantalising suggestion that they may become more than friends, even if it means being alone together.
If I Told You is an earnest effort to save a tense relationship. There’s a nice little bait and switch towards the end: “I miss the sun/oh, I miss my son.” With that hindsight it takes on the impact of How To Save A Life, though this father is willing to admit his own fallibility.
Got It Pretty Good starts with a joyful drum fill from Michael Bland, and an ironic chant of the title’s phrase despite the narrator’s obvious blues. He endeavours to rely on his own words of support when he discovers that medical and spiritual experts have nothing better to offer.
He determines to build a boat to set sail toward a better life, but in the next song similar imagery describes foundering: “up the river without a raft/you’ve done your worst with your better half.” Another perceptual switch for your listening pleasure; singer Dave Pirner transitions to the first person in urging the importance of trying to Make Her Laugh to save the relationship.
Identity is masked in Busy Signals too: “The cloak outlasts the dagger/what a mystery/I don’t know who done it/I just know it wasn’t me.” A vocoder interlude adds to the disguise and disassociation. Nothing around him seems to work anymore; maybe he’s the problem, or maybe he no longer belongs in the surroundings.
Social Butterfly is much quieter and calmer. It’s another song about returning to the social scene, but this time it’s in first person: “Need someone to talk to/I hope I say something right/I go home alone/a social butterfly.” There are a few missteps when it comes to similes and metaphors in this song: “I miss you like yellow to the colourblind/and I’m coming out of my coma” is an uncomfortable example. Other parts seem lyrically weak, unless “I’ll see you there/don’t be square” is a comment on the subject’s awkwardness after isolation.
Dead Letter is a slow waltz touching on folk and shanty traditions as Pirner contrasts real death and barely living with undelivered Dead Letters. There’s real pathos with the denouement, presumably addressing the woman that died in childbirth: “Dead letter addressed to you/it says that I’m sorry/explains the whole truth/I thought I had said it so long ago/I thought that you got it/I just didn’t know.”
Landmines gives us whiplash in its sharp shift in tone to electric rock. Like Busy Signals, it’s another song about telephones cut with considerable ambivalence: “the telephone is ringing/I don’t need bad news…a landline’s better than a landmine/This much I know/So call me on my landline/I don’t have a phone.”
Here We Go has the jangly college rock vibe of Gin Blossoms as Pirner expresses empathy and amity no matter what: “I’ll fall for you when you fall through the cracks/no matter where you go…if I could be anywhere/I wish I were with you.” Kudos for the correct use of grammar there!
Commensurate with the rest of the record, the Freezer Burn metaphor relates to a cold relationship that’s past the point of no return: “Please return my bleeding heart/for it suffers freezer burn/please take it out to thaw…if you can’t stand it you should set it free/I never thought you’d turn out who you turned out to be.”
The next song mines similar themes: “When the Silent Treatment gets so loud it’s buzzing in my head…the city streets are filled with sheets of raindrops filled with bile/the silence is so deafening it somehow makes me smile.” The chorus has a compelling sound as Pirner expresses incredulity about how different things and people have become.
Hopped Up Feeling starts out deeper and darker but soon gives us the most radio-friendly hook on the album: “I could see it if we never got together/I would never find my place in the sun.” As was strongly alluded to in previous songs, drugs were involved.
The closing track confesses something that had become increasingly clear as the record progressed: “I’ve found out just what trouble brings/you used to wear my silly ring/while I listened to my ears ring/I’ve done a lot of silly things.” This admission is a fitting end to an album filled with nostalgia, regret and a sense of inevitability.
Hurry Up and Wait is out now on Blue Élan Records.
To accompanying your listening, pick up Dave Pirner’s brand new annotated book of lyrics and memories, Loud Fast Words: Soul Asylum Collected Lyrics.
While you’re at it, grab Black Gold: The Best of Soul Asylum for a steal!