Soul Asylum and Nirvana began as indie-label post-punks influenced by Minneapolis-based Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. In the early 1990s, both groups released melodic major-label debuts and broke big. But Nirvana released Nevermind on 24 September 1991, preceding Soul Asylum’s Grave Dancers Union by 11 months, and so shifted the epicenter of alternative rock to Seattle and ushered in the everyday use of “grunge” and “alternative” to the mainstream. Today, Nirvana are remembered as the most influential band of the past 30 years. Soul Asylum are remembered mainly for their biggest hit, “Runaway Train”. It could have gone the other way.
Grave Dancers Union, released on 6 October 1992, is celebrating its 30th anniversary. The milestone raises a question: What would have happened if Soul Asylum, not Nirvana, had sold 24 million albums instead of the respectable but not generation-making three million?
I realize the question is ahistorical. Grave Dancers Union might not have happened without the major-label alternative rock gold rush that followed Nevermind. Nevermind‘s musical, vocal, and lyrical sensibilities led to the sounds, for better and worse, of bands from Weezer to Seether, Silver Chair to Nickelback. But let’s set that aside for now.
Looking back, even at the time, the tag “alternative rock” was always superficial, always too broad. Despite Soul Asylum’s and Nirvana’s shared trajectories, influences, and some superficial similarities, Nevermind and Grave Dancers Union have very little in common. This is where I should say that I have always been a Soul Asylum fan and partisan. Unlike most of the music on Nevermind, the songs of Grave Dancers Union are sincere and, yes, soulful, aspirational, and inspirational. The name Nirvana, despite that Kurt Cobain professed to want a pretty and unpunk name, always struck me as facetious, sarcastic in light of subsequent lyrics like, say, “Sell the kids for food / Weather changes moods / Spring is here again / Reproductive glands” from “In Bloom”. The name Soul Asylum, at least for Grave Dancers Union, feels exactly right.
The opening track, a term that meant something in 1993, on Grave Dancers Union, “Somebody to Shove”, begins almost like an alternate universe, sped up and minor key “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, just as singer/guitarist/songwriter Dave Pirner resembled an alt ’90s, whiteboy dreadlocked Axl Rose if you squinted. Like almost all the opening tracks of the era, it was a hard rocker: driving, building, credibility-establishing, smirking. What separated it, along with all of the songs on Grave Dancers Union, from Nevermind and the rest was not just its catchiness, its Cheap Trick-inspired pop sense. It was also its sensibility. Its wordplay starts with the title’s obvious subversion of the maudlin cliché of “somebody to love”, with apologies to Freddy Mercury. But the heart of the song is not the fakey tough-guy threats of shoving, but the vulnerability that threats can’t mask: “I’m waiting by the phone / Waiting for you to call me up and tell me I’m not alone.” The idea of waiting for a phone call might date the track, but the feeling has not changed.
Other songs demonstrate similar layers, sometimes a façade of swagger overlaying vulnerability, or occasionally simple sadness, with hope. In “Keep It Up”, Pirner sings, “I’m down here waitin’ on a shattered heart / I’m gonna put it back together if it tears me apart / If I can keep it up.” But before the song is over, he confides that, despite the song’s upbeat pop, “Though the rain weighs down your wings / Still the caged bird’s got to sing.” The chorus’s telephone-affected, descending chromatic scale in “99%” turns the at-first sweet idea that “I need you 99% of the time” into something ironic and dismissive while simultaneously suggesting the speaker’s own insecurity.
The opening lines of “April Fool” start with the dumb swagger of “Night driving without headlights / Wearin’ sunglasses too / Lookin’ good but sure don’t feel right / Anything to be cool,” already suggesting sarcasm before the chorus confirms that the joke is on the speaker: “I’m an April Fool for you.” Similarly, “Without a Trace” opens in the grand tradition of the Police‘s “Roxanne” and Elton John‘s “Sweet Painted Lady”: “I fell in love with a hooker.” But the following line punctures its pretensions: “She laughed in my face.” The lyrics continue, casually, funnily, insouciantly: “I tried to dance at a funeral / New Orleans style / I joined the Grave Dancer’s Union / I had to file,” before the final lines’ reversal and tragedy, but again sung to an upbeat, almost country twang: “I liked to see your face / You left without a trace / You leave without a trace.” Meanwhile, unlike Nirvana’s frequent dissonance and distortion, the music remains melodic, layered with wistful acoustic guitar strumming, and, for a so-called alternative rock band, ballad-like in the word’s traditional sense.
Like Grave Dancers Union, the lyrics of Nevermind were mediations on anxiety and alienation, but without the optimism and humor that belie nearly every track on Grave Dancers Union. Most of all, though, it was the flagship songs of Nevermind versus Grave Dancers Union that best demonstrate their differences and hint at what might have been if Soul Asylum had held Nirvana’s place in rock history and culture.
Today, we all know “Smells Like Teen Spirit” almost too well, with its regular rotation on rock playlists and even best-of-the-’70s,-‘ 80s,-and-’90s conventional radio platforms. It’s worth remembering, though, how strange the song was at first: the jangly opening chords before the cacophonous drums and volcanic distortion kicks in; the now-prophetic opening line, “Load up on guns”; the corrosive irony of “Here we are now, entertain us”; the surreal imagery of “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido”; the self-deprecating bluntness of “I feel stupid and contagious”; the ending’s repetition until burning out of “A denial, a denial, a denial, a denial.” But, of course, for the first dozen listens, none of the words were even intelligible, as Weird Al stressed in his parody, “Smells Like Nirvana”: “What is this song all about? / Can’t figure any lyrics out.”
On the other hand, the biggest hit of Grave Dancers Union, “Runaway Train”, which won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Song in 1994, is plaintive and painful while adhering to Pirner’s typical reversals: “Promised myself I wouldn’t weep / One more promise I couldn’t keep.” The lyrics—all discernable—describe a sadness that is personal, not social: “Can you help me remember how to smile? / Make it somehow all seem worthwhile,” as the acoustic guitar’s chords create tension against the bass line and then resolve. But the metaphorical runaway train of the chorus turned to literal runaways thanks to its video, a milk carton-turned-movie genuinely attempting to help find lost children. This was not a sarcastic paean to teen spirit but a sincere attempt to recover missing teen bodies. It worked. According to Rolling Stone, it “led to the location and recovery of 21 of the 36 missing kids featured in the video”. “Runaway Train” eschewed fuzzy, buzzy guitars and garbled vocals for a plea, and it succeeded. Soul Asylum went on to perform at the White House in 1993 during the Bill Clinton inauguration. It is impossible to picture Nirvana there.
Could the cynicism associated with grunge, Gen X, and early 1990s rock have instead been replaced with sincerity? A skeptical sincerity, to be sure—the brilliance of Grave Dancers Union lies in its contrasts, its turns of phrase, the way listeners get a spoonful of sugar in its melodies, but the medicine of Pirner’s prickly yearning for a better self in a better world. Could a 25 million-selling Grave Dancers Union have led to a less disastrous Woodstock ’99? To fandoms working in tandem for good, rather than being mocked, like in “In Bloom”: “He’s the one / Who likes all our pretty songs / And he likes to sing along / And he likes to shoot his gun / But he knows not what it means.” To late ’90s and early 2000s bands sharing, rather than deflecting their fears, being smart, hopeful, and vulnerable simultaneously? To fewer bands like Staind? We’ll never know.
Oh well, whatever, never mind.