Once-great Minnesota rockers settle for the middle of the road on plodding comeback attempt.
"I blow it out of proportion, make it loud beyond distortion," Soul Asylum singer Dave Pirner avows late on The Silver Lining, but only in a song rightly called "The Great Exaggerator". Pacific, calm, and tepid to the core, The Silver Lining in truth engulfs a platitudinal blandness in plodding adult-contemporary chord changes, to little discernable effect. As comebacks go, it makes one long for the relative glory days of 1998's universally ignored Candy From a Stranger. I dismissed that album -- itself already framed as a comeback -- at the time, but having pulled it from the shelves for a comparative listen, I'm ready to reevaluate it in a slightly more favorable light.
If The Silver Lining's greatest achievement is securing the retrospective upgrading of another mediocre album to clear space on the bottom rung of Soul Asylum's discography, it's made doubly sad by the fact that this weak album will almost certainly reinforce misguided perceptions of the band. First written off as second-stringers to Minneapolis peers Husker Du and the Replacements, then unfairly maligned as one-hit-wonder poster children for the corporatization of "alternative" rock, Soul Asylum in fact forged a brilliant combination of punk-inspired fury and Cheap Trick-worthy hooks on early albums like 1986's Made to be Broken and 1990's ...And the Horse They Rode in On. Roaming the stylistic range with endearing ambition, racing through guitarist Dan Murphy's bracing leads, and cramming as much of Pirner's (and sometimes Murphy's) ambitious and heartfelt wordplay as would fit into three minutes, the Soul Asylum of 1984 through the early '90s demands a critical revision; while the albums could be uneven, the songs approached greatness time and again, making the band one of the most unheralded indie rock groups of the '80s.
Unheralded, of course, precisely because they were overexposed: in the wake of the surprise 1993 megahit "Runaway Train", the band suddenly abandoned its perpetual opening-act status for the limelight. It didn't last. The 1995 post-stardom album Let Your Dim Light Shine made an honorable attempt to bypass trends for a classic-rock vibe; the mass audience showed less interest, while underground gatekeepers who had long ignored the band now scorned them for "selling out". Candy From a Stranger drew almost no response, and since then the band has seemingly flitted in and out of existence, playing the occasional gig but releasing nothing except a charming live album in 2004, documenting a 1997 North Dakota gig at the Grand Forks Prom at which the band played a rebellious set that included covers of "School's Out" and "Sexual Healing".
The Silver Lining, then, has had several years to gestate, and press materials reveal that some tracks date back at least a half-decade. While the band audibly ran out of gas in the late '90s, there would be every reason to hope they've since refueled. Alas, mostly we get sputters: from the insipid opening non-anthem "Stand Up and Be Strong" to the painfully trite "Crazy Mixed Up World" (whose chorus explains, "Someone's always got a gun and it's all about money"), these songs muster little emotional resonance and simply suggest lead songwriter Pirner has lost his edge. Even his mostly forgettable 2002 solo album offered some loopy lyrics (one song detailed a dream of being caught naked in a burning building with a racist politician) that at least avoided dipping too deeply into the cliché well from which he gulps readily here. At the album's nadir (on "Success Is Not So Sweet"), Pirner actually manages to sing the verse "You want a baby/ I know you do/ I'll be your baby/ And I'll take care of you"; the fact that he neither winces nor laughs may be his greatest achievement on The Silver Lining.
Somewhat less hideous, but hardly more inspiring, are the series of forgettable midtempo ballads that clog the album's second half. "Watcha Need" collapses on its flimsy R&B foundations, while "Good for You" wallows in sappy sentiment that sounds lifted from a rejected card at the Hallmark factory. These and other tracks hover around the four-minute mark, testing listener endurance and inviting fonder recollections of days gone by (for proof that Pirner could once write pretty stirring ballads, see "Endless Farewell" on 1988's Hang Time). First single "Oxygen", with its overly-familiar melody, takes a bizarrely antiquated stance against shock treatment, which sounds like it might be metaphorical until the song settles into a gratuitous anti-psychiatry screed that wouldn't sound out of place at a Scientology rally.
As bad as The Silver Lining is, a knee-jerk reaction would obscure some redeeming moments. "Lately" tells a compelling story of a soldier sent off to Iraq, leaving his pregnant and confused partner behind at home. The song almost serves as a sequel to 1990's "We 3", except that this time, a newly mature Pirner declines to play homewrecker (in words that might be a tribute to his fellow Minneapolitan Prince, he sings, "I can't take the place of her man"). Boasting a pleasantly rolling melody, "Lately" also obliquely touches on the raw nerve of wartime atrocity as Pirner hopes the returning father can "live with whatever he did". It's the sort of effective ambivalence that's largely absent from the rest of the album, though the acoustic bonus track "Fearless Leader" makes manifest some of its latent political content, declaring Jesus a hippie and sarcastically noting, "Now some folks who worship him are the ones who would have cheered at the crucifixion." While thematically echoing Kris Kristofferson's 1970 "The Law is for Protection of the People" (among others), the song at least breaks free from the album's lyrical doldrums.
A few scattered tracks also tap into the arena-rock swagger that ran as an undercurrent through Soul Asylum's late '80s period. "Slowly Rising" launches into some enjoyably salacious sleaze, while "Bus Named Desire" suggests Pirner hasn't entirely lost his penchant for smart wordplay ("I paid my dues underneath your tires," he tells the vehicle). But these dispersed moments of redemption scarcely mitigate the travesty of The Silver Lining's dull, dental-office-ready thrust. Original bassist Karl Mueller passed away after a struggle with throat cancer midway through recording; former Replacement Tommy Stinson stood in on subsequent sessions, but he brings the generic studio professionalism of his later-day hired-hand work rather than the rambunctious wildness of the early 'Mats.
For that matter, Pirner has apparently followed onetime local competitor Paul Westerberg into obsolescence; whereas once they both captured as beautifully as anyone the turmoil of transitioning from adolescence into young adulthood, neither seems interested in exploring the parallel conflicts of middle agedness. Instead, they've retreated to a less personal, and less involving, position of songwriting generalist. It can be chalked up to maturity, or to justified career frustration, but as Bob Mould (who completes the holy triumvirate of Minneapolis indie rock and served as Soul Asylum's producer many years ago) has shown, one can continue to grapple with life's struggles, maintain career autonomy, and thus retain relevance over the years. The Silver Lining is the sound of Soul Asylum sadly declining to meet that challenge, settling instead for comfort at the middle of the road. Whatever misguided criticisms were fired at the band in the 1990s now seem less incorrect than premature.
Soul Asylum - "The Silver Lining" EPK