Bands that plug away for years without having a major hit get a strange divide in their material once they blow up. Soul Asylum are a rare example of an act who sound like the same band before and after their day in the sun.
Runaway Train made SA a household name in 1992 and it’s parent album Grave Dancer’s Union was packed full of other (just as great) hit songs (In fact almost every track on that album could have been a hit single). The following albums Let Your Dim Light Shine and Candy From A Stranger tailed off in popularity as their appeal returned to one of a niche act. The standard of the song writing however did not diminish.
The quality of songsmithery in every record from 1986’s Made To Be Broken right up to 2006’s The Silver Lining has strong cases for recommendation. I can’t vouch for their work before or since this period as I haven’t heard it.
The Soul Asylum track that I’d like to shine a light on today is Never Really Been from 1986’s Made to be Broken. The album is flawed. The mishandled recording process sucked a lot of the mojo out of the early work. But the songs have it. This live acoustic version of Never Really Been (once featured on the B-Side of their massive hit single) is articulate, soulful, heartfelt and a real ear worm.
Posing existential questions on immigration ‘who is the hound at the down town dog pound who speaks English when the watchman’s not in sight’, life in the underclass ‘I’ve learned to accept and not to expect, the respect and neglect that I get’ and shattered dreams ‘and there goes my hero with his head between his legs, and all this time I believed in him’ the narrative is filtered through a prism of voyeurism. The era the song documents is cemented in the lyrics ‘Where will you be in 1993? Still sitting in the same chair?’
Of course in keeping with the flippant nature of the pop punk genre, soul searching is dismissed as boredom ‘you were thinking I was distressed about the universe oppressed, I was just depressed about my last pinball game’. Soul Asylum go deeper than they like to let on.
Never Really Been is a fine example of that.