Soul Asylum – Grave Dancer’s Union (Album of the Week)

This week I’m taking a look at one of the breakout alt-rock albums of the early ’90’s. Soul Asylum had been a long-running independent band by 1992, but a massive single would propel them to the top of the board.

Soul Asylum – Grave Dancer’s Union

Released October 6, 1992 via Columbia Records

My Favorite Tracks – Without A Trace, April Fool, Black Gold

Soul Asylum found the stage for success when rock music turned on its head in the early 1990’s. What was alternative and independent was now mainstream, and Soul Asylum were gearing up their sixth album by this point. The band was experienced and ready to break out.

The lineup at this point had been stable for awhile but was going to experience a shift. Dave Pirner was the band’s frontman and rhythm guitarist, Dan Murphy provided lead guitar and Karl Mueller was on bass. Grant Young was the band’s drummer but issues cropped up during recording and Sterling Campbell was brought in to supplement the drumming. Each drummer played on roughly half of the album. Young would remain the band’s drummer for the tour but Campbell would take over before the next album.

The album’s cover photo was a curious choice, it is a 1970 photograph by Czech artist Jan Saudek titled “Fate Descends Toward The River Leading Two Innocent Children.” Other Saudek photos have been used in cover art over the years, this being the most prominent one.

The album runs through 12 songs in fairly quick 44 minutes. There is a reissued version with live bonus tracks but I’ll be tackling the main release today.

Somebody To Shove

Opening with the album’s lead single and very nice song. It has a great hook and a nice concept about being frustrated with trying to fall in love. This was Soul Asylum’s introduction to the world at large and it worked well, as the song landed toward the top of the Alternative and Mainstream Rock charts.

Also of note – both this and the Black Gold music videos were directed by one Zack Snyder. Not sure if there are Snyder Cuts of these videos, I’d assume not.

Black Gold

The second single kept the ball rolling for this album until the train was ready to leave the station. Though a very sad song, the chorus keeps things squarely in the rock realm. The lyrics do offer a ton of room for interpretation, though it is generally given that the song is about the Persian Gulf War of 1991. For me the lyrics hit pretty hard, especially the parts about being in a small town, and as it turned out my ticket out of there was the military.

Runaway Train

Probably not a more fitting name for a song that would become the vehicle to smash success in music. The song itself is a forlorn ballad that Dave Pirner wrote about depression. The song also features a cameo – Booker T of the MGs provided keyboards.

This desperate single would climb to number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was everywhere on release. It was aided in great part by its music video, which took a different tack and featured pictures of missing children. The video and missing kids were changed for each major territory, and in the US there were 3 versions of the video each with different missing children.

The video is credited with helping locate at least 26 of these missing kids. This doesn’t have the happy ending it might convey, as many of the missing kids were murder victims. And several of the featured children were never found.

While the truth behind the video’s children might be stark, the song Runaway Train was a huge leap for Soul Asylum. The single itself went gold in the US and won the Best Rock Song Grammy in 1994. Its success would also fuel sales of the album and this would wind up being a runaway hit.

Keep It Up

After the weight of the prior song, this is a more uplifting tune both in music and theme. On its own it’s not a song I’d be all that into, but it does serve a great place in the album’s sequencing to come just after Runaway Train. And in general it was a more uplifting alternative to the gloomy grunge of the day.

Homesick

Another sad song, this one is hauntingly quiet as the narrator longs for a place they’ve never actually been. Not a ton to say about this one but it’s pretty well done.

Get On Out

Again keeping with the sequencing of going sad/uplifting, this one hammers at the depression and bad thoughts. This is a pretty good one and very well written.

New World

Another sad and quiet one though this one is a bit more abstract in theme. It does have to do with being stuck in a small town but it gets into some other territory as well. Like most everything else on the album it works pretty well.

April Fool

As the album winds toward its last third we take a detour into massive riffs. April Fool is a great song that combines riffs that are near heavy metal with some silly lyrics to paint a picture of cool and hip. It’s a departure from the album’s norm and it’s a wonderful back-half gem, though we’re just getting started on that front.

Without A Trace

The late-half gems continue with this amazing song. This did actually get released as a single toward the end of the album’s life cycle. While many of the songs here are either sad or not, this one combines all sentiments and distills them into an essence greater than the sum of its parts.

Dave Pirner wrote the song about always being on the move to try and find something new or try and get away from the trappings of the old place. And the guitar hook on this is just spectacular. It’s like a ’90’s country song but put on rock steroids.

Growing Into You

This one is a pretty straightforward alt-rock slammer. It doesn’t quite hold up to the two preceding tunes but it’s a nice song worth the time.

99%

One more hidden gem before the album winds down. This is a sloppy, distorted mess, which is always right up my alley. It’s also a pretty accurate treatise on love and how it’s a 99% thing. Not much else to really say about it, just a nice, dirty love song.

The Sun Maid

The album closes on a quiet and very melancholy track. It’s a departure from the songs prior to it for sure. The song in and of itself is not bad by any means but I’ll admit I’m one of the people who aren’t’ all that into it. It just crashes the mood after all the rocking out that just happened. I know some people passionately defend this song and I’ve had arguments over it in the past, but I’m not gonna be swayed off my position after 30 years.

Grave Dancer’s Union was the album that put Soul Asylum on the map. It charted at number 11 in the US and held high spots in many European countries. It has at least two US platinum certifications and maybe even three, this information is a bit hard to nail down sometimes.

It would not be a long stay in the mainstream eye for Soul Asylum. Their next album would produce another hit single but the band would ease back into the independent scene after that. This was more their moment in the sun than a great arrival. Soul Asylum are still an active outfit today.

For me I very much enjoyed this album when it came out, even though at the time I was mostly exploring the extreme metal scene. These songs had the right amount of creativity, sadness and wit to stand out from others in the alt-rock crowd. This is decidedly a rock record but it certainly has shades of country to it. It was fantastically written and played, and it remains a staple of the ’90’s alt-rock era.

6 thoughts on “Soul Asylum – Grave Dancer’s Union (Album of the Week)

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