If only that were the case.
The group quietly parted ways with Columbia Records after 1998’s Candy From a Stranger tanked and pretty much dropped out of the music industry’s consciousness and into semi-exile; front man Dave Pirner relocated to New Orleans and released a solo album, only to have his home wrecked last summer by Hurricane Katrina; and, after Pirner and fellow co-founders Dan Murphy and Karl Muellerreconvened to record a new album, Mueller lost a battle with esophageal cancer last year.
After such adversity, the fact that Soul Asylum has resurfaced with a new disc at all (most of the tracks feature Mueller, but some were re-cut with his hand-picked replacement and old Minneapolis pal, Tommy Stinson, on bass) is a triumph worth celebrating. The sum total of the music itself is another story.
On the one hand, there are more than enough melodic highlights to make this album appealing to fans of both the band’s ’90s alternative radio hits and its loud, fast ’80s roots, even if none is as brilliant as past Pirner-penned punk/pop masterpieces (see “Sometime to Return,” “Marionette,” “Somebody to Shove” or “Bittersweetheart”). To its credit, on much of this album Soul Asylum taps into the raw, unbridled emotion and enthusiasm that has always made it a must-see live act, and does so better than it has in a good many years (newly added, hard-driving drummer Michael Bland is clearly an asset in that regard).
Feverish energy and razor-sharp hooks make rockers “Bus Named Desire,” “All Is Well” and “Slowly Rising” instantly memorable, worthy additions to the band’s catalog. Pirner’s gut-wrenching delivery alone on “Stand Up and Be Strong” more than makes up for the song’s ultra-staid verses. “Oxygen” deftly glides from Murphy’s ringing guitar buildup into a hefty-chorus payoff that is worth the wait. There is even a topical companion piece of sorts to the band’s modern-rock hit “Black Gold” from 1992; that song, in the wake of the Gulf War, addressed the consequences of the battle for oil in the Middle East, while the new cut “Lately” addresses a soldier coming home from the war in Iraq to a newborn child, getting “a chance to look at his kid, and hope he can live with whatever he did.”
The disc’s downside is that for seemingly every tune that captures glory of the band at its best, there is a mid-tempo clunker. “Whatcha Need” (essentially a leftover from Pirner’s solo album), “Success Is Not So Sweet” (a belatedly released whine about the trappings of breakthrough success) and “Good for You” make for little more than drab, watered-down filler. Also, Pirner’s weaker lyrical moments are striking for a songwriter of his caliber, ranging from cringe-inducing mixed metaphors (“You’re like a sitting duck waiting for the summer rain to come”), flat repetition (“You might have to fight, you might have to cry/You might have to cry, you might have to fight”) or hopelessly corny phrasings (“Yes I think I’d be good for you/Just like orange juice, a walk around the lake”).
In the end, the worst that can be said about Pirner and Murphy as they trudge on is that a quarter century into their band’s existence — an evolution from young punk outfit who landed a contract with A&M Records, to college-radio favorites who sold few albums, to assuming a place among many short-lived grunge era hitmakers, and beyond — is that they make some uneven records, The Silver Lining being the latest. They also often fail at the darn-near impossible task of trying to please fans of all phases of their career.
Bearing in mind the tumultuous past eight years they have endured, and the moments on this album where they get it right, don’t hold that against them, or write them off just yet. Soul Asylum has survived worse.
— By George Henn