25 Years of Keeping Our Hopes Up
First off, I think this album is better than Grave Dancer’s Union. Yes, I know that record contained “Runaway Train” and “Black Gold,” but those hits are no match for “Misery” and “Hopes Up” (though I do consider “Somebody to Shove” a contender). I’m also not ashamed to admit that, back then, I had no idea these guys had five other albums under their belt, which were basically punk rock. Don’t worry, I’m a little hipper nowadays.
I believe with a band called Soul Asylum, that soul should play an essential role in their sound. Let Your Dim Light Shine oozed so much soulfulness that it instantly made a lifelong connection with me during the summer of ’95. The delicate balance of soft blues and chaotic angst was exactly what I needed. When I first heard “Misery” on my local alternative station, I was a goner. I loved how quickly the song progressed from the subdued intro to the therapeutic, upbeat chorus of, “Put me out of my misery!” David Pirner took the tired cliché of “misery loves company” and made it enjoyable. Whenever I think of ‘90s anthems, this song has to be included. Imagine my delight when it appeared in Clerks II 11 years later.
“Hopes Up” should have received more attention. It snuck its way onto radio a few times then disappeared. I’ve never listened to the beginning without air drumming like a maniac. The way the lead guitars sync up with the vocals in the chorus is just gnarly. The heaviness of Karl Mueller’s bass notes stamped it with an extra “oomph.” This is one for letting it all out. It will always be a blast to cruise down the highway with the windows down, yelling, “I feel like feelin’ better than I ever felt before!”
My favorite thing about this disc has always been the variety and pacing. It’s incredible how often Soul Asylum switches between distorted guitar hooks and mellow, reflective crooning, without it feeling forced. “Caged Rat” seamlessly flips from lounge music to extreme grunge, without warning. It even has some bloops and bleeps thrown in for good measure. I like to call it “fusion incorporated” or “angry jazz.” The lyrics are short and repetitive, but they work for the song. It also predates Billy Corgan screaming about “a rat in a cage” by about four months.
As a creative writer, I’ve always appreciated the storytelling in “String of Pearls.” I don’t just hear the song; I see it play like a movie. It’s an interesting look at how similar people are, and how oddly connected we become at times. Bonus points for the humorous line that many teenage boys (and adults) can relate to: “Death was one thing, but women made him nervous.” Pirner also succeeded surprisingly well at narrating tales about female tribulations on “Just Like Anyone” and “Tell me When” (though the latter still makes me cringe when I hear the chorus).
Thematically, it’s a loose concept album centered around depression. When the record concludes, I feel like I’ve spent a week with someone who has conquered (or at least managed) their demons with a smile. “Shut Down” deals with the pains of feeling invisible and dysfunctional. There’s excellent wordplay in the line, “Tried to get ahead but only got decapitated.” You can feel the frustration bleeding through the speakers on this fist-pumping tune. It wouldn’t surprise me if something was smashed or lit on fire after its recording.
On the immediate opposite side of that aggression is a beautiful piece I could imagine Tom Petty singing, “To my own Devices.” I didn’t think much about it when I was younger, but now I sense a battle with alcoholism. The first line, “Shouldn’t a got so loaded, damn near exploded,” combined with the chorus, “Please don’t leave me to my own devices,” sounds like a cry for help. It’s someone admitting they can’t be trusted on their own. A similar confession shows up on the heavier “Crawl,” with lyrics like, “See you later maybe, one more beer,” and the powerful, “I could use someone to drag me out of here / I am that someone, it’s all become quite clear.”
“I Did my Best” closes the album with Pirner peacefully singing, “And I did the best that I could do, with all the mess that I’ve been through.” After 25 years, this record still beams with a powerful ray of hope amidst the struggle that is life. I say do like Soul Asylum suggests, and let that dim light shine.