The Soul Asylum soap opera is an oddly affecting tale of poetic injustice. After scraping by for the better part of a decade, with two minor classics (1986's Made to Be Broken, and Hang Time two years later) and a steady regimen of feral live gigs to their credit, the band was demoted to the cutout bins by the perpetually inept A&M label in 1990. Their career at a crossroads, the group once known as Loud Fast Rules responded by shopping a demo of acoustic tunes that, through four months of studio time bankrolled by the shrewder suits at Sony, swelled into Grave Dancer's Union. Released in 1992, near the apex of the grunge/alt-rock movement that SA's earlier work had helped inspire, the record went double-platinum. Flushed by success, the band spiraled into a creative tailspin from which it has never fully recovered. Today, pathetic scenesters deride Soul Asylum as sellouts, pathetic bean counters dismiss them as a flash in the pan, and the group is once again without a record contract.
Me? I have always admired the band, especially singer-songwriter Dave Pirner, for the honesty they've brought to grappling with a fundamental quandary: How do you remain true to yourself when you don't know what you want to become? Pirner has always answered this question with ferocious ambiguity. That is why, throughout the band's long existence, their best tunes amount to a constant stream of identity crises. It's also why traces of the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and the Jayhawks are folded into the music, and why songs ranging from "Sexual Healing" to "To Sir with Love" to "Rhinestone Cowboy" have found their way on to SA's set lists. It's why Pirner dealt with the adulation-cum-manipulation of showbiz stardom by dumping his longtime lover for Winona Ryder and making the group's first post-GDU single a scathing but turgid satire titled "Misery," with an accompanying video shot in a CD pressing plant.
The overwhelming success of GDU enabled the Armani and Dr. Martens crowds alike to pigeonhole Pirner. As he felt Soul Asylum being transformed into a padded cell, was it hypocritical of him to simultaneously revel among and thumb his nose at both camps, when he never pretended to be anything more than a candidly confused contrarian? Probably. But I prefer his reaction to the bloated political posturing of Bono or the suicidal shotgun of Kurt Cobain.
The title of Black Gold: The Best of Soul Asylum (Columbia/Legacy) is a laughable misnomer. Released simply to fulfill the band's now-defunct Sony contract, the disc is an unholy mess, a perplexing porridge of big hits, self-conscious misses, soundtrack cuts, previously unreleased outtakes, stray concert recordings, and a handful of tracks from the band's output on Twin/Tone and A&M, all haphazardly flung together without any stylistic or chronological moorings. And, as such, it's a better summation of the group's career than if the collection had been assembled with more care and coherence.
What's immediately apparent is how much the riches of GDU knocked Pirner off kilter. Where the naked vulnerability of "Runaway Train" and the passive-aggressive desperation of "Somebody to Shove," both from GDU, still transcend their numbing familiarity, two of the three songs from 1995's Let Your Dim Light Shine--the mean-spirited "Misery" and the pretentiously constructed, Billy Joel-like groaner, "String of Pearls"--capture Pirner and company torn between sneering at and trying to justify their platinum status. Yet for those (myself among them) who felt the GDU backlash caused lasting creative damage, there are times when Black Gold is a riveting, revealing document. Its lead track, "Just Like Anyone," also from Dim Light, shows that the band can regain its equilibrium when it sticks to more thematically trustworthy terrain--the emotional tug-of-war between belonging to a community and going one's own way.
With the band's Eighties output largely overlooked, quibbles about song selection are inevitable. But what's fascinating is how astutely the older tunes comment on the band's current doldrums. Amid the piss and vinegar of Hang Time's "Sometime to Return," Pirner howls for "something you can call real," before plunging into the pile-driver chorus, "We are/We are/We are/Doing the best we can/Working without a plan." Right then it occurs to me that those able to cope with the funhouse mirrors of stardom are those who fully expect to be stars. The suspicious and awestruck Pirner was not among them.
But Pirner apparently always had an inkling that his internal contradictions were destined to be used against him, and that he'd make a lousy standard-bearer for both the hipsters and the capitalists. In that sense, the real jewel on Black Gold is a live rendition of the 1984 song "Closer to the Stars," performed at a Toronto concert 11 years later. Where the original version bore the rubber burns of Loud Fast Rules, this take is plaintive and fragile, giving the acoustic guitar and Pirner's voice center stage as he lays out his prescient autobiographical lament. "You know that pretty soon you'll be able to fly," he sings. "How is this going to affect you?/Do you think it might wreck you?/Your friends might reject you/Say you took it too far." Lest we miss the point, he continues: "Yesterday you were too young/Tomorrow you will be too old/...Secondhand excuses never went too far/...They said you were faking..."
Today it may seem as if the state of Soul Asylum is remarkably similar to what it was exactly a decade ago, with no record contract and Pirner feverishly laying the groundwork for the band's next stylistic pivot. An optimist might even say that hints of the group's future direction can be gleaned from an outtake of the title track from SA's last record, 1998's Candy From a Stranger, that appears here. The tune flirts with silky R&B in the manner of Curtis Mayfield, adds some Clapton-like blues-rock flourishes, and sounds unlike anything the band has ever done.
Pirner's recent bent toward R&B, however, has been developed down in New Orleans without the other band members, and will likely result in a solo project. Although Pirner recently told the Star Tribune that he expects another Soul Asylum album to follow this endeavor, precious few rock bands have regained their vintage form once individual creative avenues have been pursued. Even if the band maintains its current lineup and occasionally unleashes one of its trademark sweat-fests at First Avenue, it's probable that Soul Asylum as a thriving entity, the one many of us have known and respected, is gone.