The Silver Lining Label: Sony Records
For over 20 years, Soul Asylum’s rollercoaster career has emulated life itself: the highest of the highs, lowest of lows, wins, losses, and all the personal and professional battles along the way. They are one of the last true garage bands from that early ‘80s post-punk movement, hailing from Minneapolis amidst the Replacements and Husker Du and having gone from the cover of “Rolling Stone” and Bill Clinton’s inauguration ball to near obscurity in a just a few years. Lead singer Dave Pirner lost his New Orleans home to Hurricane Katrina, and founding bassist Karl Mueller lost his fight with throat cancer last summer while recording The Silver Lining, the band’s first studio release since 1998’s lackluster Candy from a Stranger.
In its most fundamental state, I agree with guitarist/songwriter Dan Murphy, who calls The Silver Lining “a guitar record.” Soul Asylum hasn’t rocked out like “All is Well” and “Bus Named Desire” since their glory days. Sure, they peaked with 1992’s Grave Dancer’s Union, but three years later they still brought the edgy guitar-rock goods with Let Your Dim Light Shine. From there, however, they went soft and essentially went AWOL. Candy from a Stranger had all the unsubstantial, past-their-prime qualities of a career-ending album. They’ve done nothing but the occasional summer tour since 1998, rehashing the back catalog for $20/night like REO Speedwagon or Alice Cooper.
Now comes Silver Lining and, well, it ain’t bad at all, especially this late in the game. It could be assumed that Mueller’s deteriorating health condition inspired the boys to circle the wagons and lay tape to whatever material they had in the tank. The Replacements’ Tommy Stinson stood in when Mueller was unavailable, and serves as a perfect fit. “Stand Up and Be Strong” commences things in military battle cry fashion, albeit poorly written. (NOTE: Pirner’s often juvenile, rhyme-at-all-cost lyrics have long been the prison shackle around this band’s ankle) “If you live in The Hills, you take too many pills, if you’ve lost the thrill against your own will, stand up and be strong,” orders Pirner, as if he’s been brainwashed by Dr. Seuss’s “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.”
The second half of the album melts down in ballad land, never one of Soul Asylum’s strengths, “Runaway Train” included. While the first six tracks are plenty worth the price of admission, painful experiments in love and betrayal (“Great Exaggerator” and “Success Is Not So Sweet”) will really challenge the patience meter. When all’s said and done, high marks must be granted Soul Asylum for enduring the last few obstacle-marred years and emerging (essentially) the same band they were 22 years ago. There’s something to be said for still being aboard that rollercoaster at all.