Soul Asylum Reconsidered

The Minneapolis alt rockers are much more than a 90s one hit wonder.

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Sometime in the mid-80s, my high school bandmates and I fell hard for three Minneapolis bands: Hüsker Dü, the Replacements and Soul Asylum. We’d heard some of this music before, but those three groups suddenly coalesced into our own holy trinity as we struggled to find a sound for our “first serious band.” We probably set the bar a little too high for ourselves, but in terms of early influences we could have done a lot worse.

All three bands were rooted in punk rock, but shot through with a no-nonsense Midwestern approach that sounded exciting to our SoCal ears. Here was great, high-energy music we could relate to, but with pop hooks and nods to the 50s/60s/70s influences we loved. And we already owned the uniform thanks to the influence of local bands like Black Flag and Minutemen—flannel shirts/T-shirts, jeans and Chuck Taylors.

It felt like we were in on a powerful secret by digging these Minnesota bands, so I always consider myself lucky to have seen all of them perform at least once. All three bands were obviously fantastic live, but Soul Asylum stands out in my memory. The dual guitar/vocal attack of Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy coupled with the muscly rhythm section of bassist Karl Mueller and drummer Grant Young created an undeniable wall of sound. They shared some of the shambolic bar band swagger perfected by the Replacements, but supercharged with a driving musical energy more akin to Hüsker Dü. Their live shows and albums also displayed something unique to their sound: a proto-Grunge groove on songs like “Freaks,” “Little Too Clean” and “Just Plain Evil.”

Hüsker Dü, the Replacements and Soul Asylum were all distinct, but together formed the core sound of my teen years. I was one hundred percent certain that all three bands would be legendary.

In the intervening 30 years, Hüsker Dü and the Replacements have ascended to their rightful places in the alternative rock pantheon. Name-checked by countless guitar-wielding artists from the 90s to today, their romantic, sometimes tragic, underdog stories have been endlessly rehashed in magazines, books, podcasts and movies (and I happily read, listen and watch all of them). Meanwhile, Soul Asylum has become something of a footnote, often dismissed as “one hit wonders,” “sell outs,” or a “nostalgia act”—if they’re remembered at all.

Which is a little head-scratching given that all three followed a similar early trajectory—from bashing it out in Minneapolis clubs and low-budget cross-country tours, to releasing a handful of critically-acclaimed indie albums before getting scooped up by major labels—but only one of them was “cursed” with a worldwide hit called “Runaway Train.” It was the third single from their first Columbia Records album, Grave Dancers Union, which followed four releases for Twin/Tone Records and two for A&M Records. That was 1993, twelve years after Soul Asylum first formed (as Loud Fast Rules), six years after Hüsker Dü broke up for good and about two years after the Replacements called it quits. To say that Soul Asylum paid their dues and earned their success would be a major understatement.

So it seems that revisionists have hit the band with a double whammy: dismissing them for their hard-won mainstream success, while scoffing at them for failing to produce more hits. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And they’re still recording and touring today (COVID-19 notwithstanding). Dave Pirner might be the only original member left, but adoring fans turned out for their early 2020 tour just the same, thrilled to mostly hear music from their post-Twin/Tone and A&M catalog.

I moved on from Soul Asylum in the 90s as my tastes changed, but still consider a few of their early albums among my all-time favorites. And it’s that music I’m here to defend, or to at least request a reconsideration. It’s fine if Soul Asylum’s second or third act wasn’t for you (it mostly wasn’t for me either), but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If it has been a while, or if you’ve never spent time with their back catalog, here are ten songs worth your attention.

  1. Sick Of That Song (Say What You Will, Clarence… — 1984)

2. “Made To Be Broken” (Made To Be Broken — 1986)

3. “Ain’t That Tough” (Made To Be Broken—1986)

4. “Freaks” (While You Were Out—1986)

5. “Closer To The Stars” (While You Were Out—1986)

6. “Little Too Clean” (Hang Time—1988)

7. Cartoon (Hang Time—1988)

8. “Just Plain Evil” (Clam Dip & Other Delights—1989)

9. “P-9” (Clam Dip & Other Delights—1989)

10. “Spinnin” (And The Horse They Rode In On—1990)

Essays: “Go All The Way: A Literary Appreciation of Power Pop.” Crime: “That’ll Be The Day: A Power Pop Heist” + “Good Girls Don’t” (swlauden.com).

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