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Two new reissues allow us to re-examine Soul Asylum’s ’80s legacy

Soul Asylum left to right: Karl Mueller, Grant Young, Dave Pirner, Dan Murphy

Soul Asylum left to right: Karl Mueller, Grant Young, Dave Pirner, Dan Murphy Press photo

Prestige reissues are no longer strictly the domain of audiophiles and classic rockers. The seemingly limitless nostalgia and fascination for the ’80s underground means that labels are now often giving the catalogs of seminal alternative-leaning bands the deluxe treatment. Albums by the Smiths, New Order, Depeche Mode, and R.E.M. have all received well-deserved revamps while, more recently, the output of Flaming Lips, Pixies, and White Zombie, as well as hometown heroes the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, have hit stores.

Now, thanks to Omnivore Recordings, the label responsible for putting Trip Shakespeare’s Are You Shakespearienced? and Applehead Man back into circulation, Soul Asylum is finally receiving the lavish reissue treatment. Omnivore recently released revamped versions of the band’s first two albums, 1984’s Say What You Will... Everything Can Happen and 1986’s Made to Be Broken, packaged with a generous number of bonus tracks on each.

These albums capture Soul Asylum at their off-kilter best, just several years after the band—driven by the core trio of vocalist/guitarist Dave Pirner, guitarist Dan Murphy, and late bassist Karl Mueller—originally coalesced under the name Loud Fast Rules. As local history goes, the band then changed their name to Soul Asylum, thrashed through the ’80s, and languished on a major label before 1992’s Grave Dancers Union became a multiplatinum success.

From a national perspective, the latter album is something of an albatross. Such massive exposure means the band will always have people who view them only through that lens, and ignore the group’s ’80s output. In other words, although Grave Dancers Union installed Soul Asylum in the ’90s alternative-nation upper echelon, it also gave many people the wrong idea about the band.

You might say Soul Asylum’s CliffsNotes summary is more often perceived as ragged folk or the generic-sounding ’90s modern rock, rather than the more precise shit-kicking, scrappy punk band with vintage country and classic rock pulsing through their veins. The cognitive dissonance between breakneck hardcore oddities and the Top 5 hit “Runaway Train” is too great.

The reissues of Say What You Will... Everything Can Happen and Made to Be Broken go a long way toward correcting any misconceptions and connecting the dots between eras.

Although the original full-lengths were produced by Bob Mould, these versions are co-produced by Twin/Tone Records co-founder Peter Jesperson and Omnivore Recordings co-founder Cheryl Pawelski. The personal, fan-driven flourishes are evident throughout—from the flyers and old photos decorating the album booklets to the liner notes written by old-school fans Robert Vodicka and Gina Arnold. These touches make all the difference, as it’s clear everyone involved is motivated to do justice to these records.

In the case of Made to Be Broken, this is especially long overdue. The first album to feature drummer Grant Young (original member Pat Morley had left in 1985), the full-length is a burnt-sugar power-pop classic overflowing with molten melodies and desperate harmonies. Pirner’s lyrics are skeptical and searching, full of free-floating restlessness and discontent that’s enormously appealing and affecting.

And while there are certainly nods to Hüsker Dü—in particular “Tied to the Tracks” and the CD bonus track “Long Way Home”—Made to Be Broken is forward-glancing. The supercharged Southern rock of “Growing Pain” and touching folk number “Never Really Been” presaged the country-punk that would soon bubble up out of the Midwest thanks to bands such as Uncle Tupelo, while other moments revel in genre-busting weirdness—the boogie-woogie piano slightly behind the beat on “Ain’t That Tough,” for example, or the jazzy sizzle driving the rhythms of “Another World, Another Day.”

A rickety-waltz version of the latter song, with Pirner contributing wary saxophone, is one of nine unreleased tracks on the Made to Be Broken reissue. (In fact, his woodwind contortions add reckless charm to multiple songs throughout these two records.) Other highlights include an even more urgent and desperate alternate take on Murphy’s already-hungry “Can’t Go Back”; the screaming white noise machine that’s “Fearless”; and the loose-hinged, lighthearted “Ramblin’ Rose,” which shows off Soul Asylum’s playful side.

Say What You Will... Everything Can Happen wears its influences equally well, if not more obviously. The Replacements’ earliest records are certainly inspirations (Pirner even growls and bellows like Paul Westerberg in spots), while it’s impossible not to hum the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” over the saxophone-aided mood piece “Stranger.” However, the album is looser—crank up the greaser Van Halen vibes of “Money Talks,” the outlaw-punk gallop “Stranger,” and the cynical social commentary underscoring the tensile “Religiavision”—and stranger, courtesy of the Time’s Incinerator / Karl Sold the Truck bonus tracks.

The ringing hardcore burst “Spacehead” segues directly into the furious power-punk uppercut “Broken Glass.” And if Soul Asylum were a hardcore band crashing a genteel wedding, they’d no doubt be blasting “Masquerade,” which also starts off as careening hardcore before shifting sharply to strolling rockabilly with jazz-lounge sax and Pirner serving as a raconteur-like ringleader.

The real curios on Say What You Will... Everything Can Happen are the Loud Fast Rules demos, included as bonus tracks, which illustrate how much of Soul Asylum’s surface sloppiness was the band settling into a groove. “Job for Me” hews toward deconstructed swing-jazz; “Nowhere to Go” segues from a wobbly ’50s slow dance into a punk-pop; and the scattered, sparse “Out of Style” features more of Pirner’s ghostly sax.

There’s only one unreleased song from this era, the throttling hardcore number “Cocktails,” although it’s a worthy, sub-two-minute demo full of piss and vinegar. And the gleeful, distorted cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” is faithful to the sighing gloom of the original while being almost cheerful about such fatalism.

Extensive reissues are certainly for die-hard fans. But the most successful re-releases also illuminate dusty corners of an artist’s catalog, and convince the uninitiated (and unconvinced) of musical greatness. Say What You Will... Everything Can Happen and Made to Be Broken both succeed—and, perhaps even more important, lobby for Soul Asylum to have a much bigger, more respected place in the ’80s underground canon.