One of the hardest working bands of the late 1980s, Soul Asylum finally broke though in 1992 with Grave Dancers Union. Made up of well-composed three and four minute songs, the album contains an amazing amount of genre diversity as well as tidbits of experimentation without every elongating any one section or theme unnecessarily. Each song stands out in its own way, with no two sounding completely alike. There are very few weak, filler-level tracks, while the standouts are very strong. While the album is brilliant musically throughout, it does fluctuate lyrically between deep, poetic lyrics and some which are cheap and trite. But that being said, this is one of the best albums of 1992 and it nicely straddles the line between the predominant genre of the day, alternative, and many other sub-genres of rock n’ roll.
This is officially the sixth studio album by the Minneapolis quintet, preceded by three independent releases in 1986 and two more on the A&M label – Clam Dip & Other Delights in 1989, And the Horse They Rode In On in 1990. The band also toured relentlessly during these years while forging their sound from its early punk roots to the modern alternative with many other elements thrown in. However they a hard time breaking beyond a regional act and, due to weak sales from these latter two albums, the band was dropped from the A&M label. In the early 1990s, the band re-formed as an unplugged, acoustic act, which caught the attention of Columbia Records and led to this initial album for that label.
The album marks the emergence of vocalist/guitarist Dave Pirner as the true “front man” for the group, a role he was hesitant to embrace in the past but a key role in the chemistry of the band’s sound and image. The sessions for this album did not go without controversy as producer Michael Beinhorn grew dissatisfied with the performance of drummer Grant Young midway through the sessions. He brought in Sterling Campbell, who had vast experience with acts such as David Bowie and Duran Duran. Campbell recorded the latter sessions for the album and eventually replaced Young as Soul Asylum’s permanent drummer in the mid 1990s.
The album starts fast and strong with “Somebody to Shove”, an upbeat and catchy rocker with many elements of alternative or “grunge” rock. The tense verse builds to a release on the chorus which flows smoothly to the punk-like hook title of the song, which tells the classic story of the fool in suspended anticipation. “Black Gold” follows with a good acoustic intro and interesting changes, but is a little convoluted and weak lyrically. Written by Pirner, this was one of five singles spawned from Grave Dancers Union.
By far the most popular of these singles was “Runaway Train”, the band’s biggest hit ever. The song brought the band to international status and won the Grammy for the best rock song in 1994. Some believe the title derived from a 1980s review of the band, which described their sound as “an unholy mix of Kiss and Hank Williams tossed under a runaway train”. However, the popular video for the song focused on the “runaway” aspect, displaying several photos of teenage runaways who were still missing at the time. Musically, the song is acoustic throughout, even during the guitar lead by Dan Murphy with some Hammond organ added by sessionist Booker T. Jones III. The song also contains some of the most profound lyrics on the album;
And everything seems cut and dry, day and night, earth and sky, somehow I just don’t believe it…”
The middle part of the album sees the band exploring many sub-genres. “Keep It Up” can either be described as a nod back to 80s-style power pop or a precursor to the soon-to-arrive Collective Soul sound. In either case, it contains a heavy bass presence by Karl Mueller along with subdued vocals by Pirner. “Homesick” is a Stonesy slow country-rock revival love song, which is melancholy yet a very pleasant listen with some philosophical lyrics to boot. “New World” has an odd timed beat and a fantastic, melancholy vibe, while arranged masterfully by its constant return to the fine main acoustic riff. “April Fool” kicks off with a heavy metal riff and beat before the fits and stops of an Alice Cooper-like breaks in the verse, all topped off by multi-layered guitar parts.
“Without a Trace” is the default title song of the album, containing the lyric which gave Grave Dancers Union its title. In recent years, Pirner has dedicated the song to the memory of Mueller, who died cancer seven years ago today on June 17, 2005.
The album completes with a couple of average songs – the upbeat “Growing Into You” and the effects-laden “99%” –before the climatic concluding track “The Sun Maid”. This pleasant acoustic ballad with nice, Beatlesque strings from the Meridian String Quartet, shows the full promise of the band’s songwriting talent and ends the album on a strong note.
Within a year of its release, Grave Dancers Union was certified triple-platinum and has been, by far the top selling album by Soul Asylum. They have slowly released albums fairly consistently since then, with a new album every third-to-half decade or so, each with moderate acclaim and sales. The band plans to release a new studio album called Delayed Reaction in July 2012, their first release since 2006.