Mainstream success is probably the toughest hurdle facing any alternarock act these days. Fortunately, that's not a problem for Soul Asylum, whose new album, "Let Your Dim Light Shine" (Columbia 57616, arriving in stores today), clears that obstacle with astonishing grace and ease.
That success would be a problem of any sort may at first seem hard to believe. There are enormous advantages to having a single in the Top 40 and an album in the Top 10; in addition to fame and fortune, chart-topping rock acts earn the chance to wield real clout within the industry (just look at Pearl Jam). But selling millions of albums also puts alterna acts that much closer to Bryan Adams status, an assault on credibility and cool that few bands can easily weather (look at Nirvana).
That second scenario seemed a distinct possibility for Soul Asylum in the wake of "Runaway Train." A sad, gentle ballad about throwaway away kids, it was one of 1993's most memorable message songs. It was also far more pop-friendly than anything else in Soul Asylum's catalog, giving the band an audience far broader and more mainstream than anyone would have dreamed. As a result, many wondered which direction the follow-up would take: A hard right into Top-40 territory, or an abrupt left into alternarock insularity?
Neither. Soul Asylum just kept going straight -- and floored it.
"Misery," which opens "Let Your Dim Light Shine," is a perfect example. At once punchy and pretty, it shows off both the band's musical might and David Pirner's songwriting skills. "Misery" is about just that, but where a lesser writer would attempt to turn this reflection on angst into some sort of sweeping statement, Pirner plays it as a sort of generational joke.
"They say misery loves company/We could start a company and make misery," he sings, adding that the firm could be called "Frustrated Incorporated." It's a sublime send-up of the way people tend to wallow in their own unhappiness, but the lyric works even better when applied to the way popular culture has tried to sell disaffection back to the "slackers" who allegedly personify it. It's hard not to think of Levi's ads and "Reality Bites" as lines like "We'll create the cure/We made the disease" cascade from the speakers.
As biting as such satire is, there isn't anything mean-spirited or dismissive about "Misery." If anything, the slow-building verse and surging chorus offer a sense of triumph, as if by laughing along with Soul Asylum the listener, too, will beat unhappiness.
"Misery" may start off the album with a bang, but it's hardly the only bright moment on "Let Your Dim Light Shine." "Bittersweetheart" is a catchy, clever meditation on romantic misadventures that recalls the sparkle of "Someone to Shove," but with louder guitars and a more resilient pulse, while the blend of pop tunefulness and hard-rock muscle in "Hopes Up" cleverly updates the power-pop sound of classic Cheap Trick. "Crawl" shifts from whispered verse to amp-taxing chorus with such natural grace that it's hard not to smile every time the power chords kick in.
The band's devotion to accessibility isn't going to please every listener. Some fans will undoubtedly sneer that the moody, self-absorbed "To My Own Devices" is a little too close to Guns N' Roses for comfort. Don't worry -- stuff like the noisy, style-shifting "Caged Rat" more than maintains the balance.
Besides, few people in rock 'n' roll can convey character in a song as well as Dave Pirner does. Whether he's stringing together a series of vignettes as tightly focused as those in the gorgeous, melancholy "Eyes of a Child" or dealing with a shaggy-dog story like the one meandering through "String of Pearls," Pirner imparts real substance to the people in his songs.
But it isn't just the words that do it; his music completes the picture, charting the emotional currents so vividly that it's hard not to share the longing for celebrity described in "Just Like Anyone."
Great rock 'n' roll has always done that. It's just that few bands make it seem as easy as Soul Asylum does on "Let Your Dim Light Shine."
TURN ON THE 'LIGHT'
To hear excerpts from Soul Asylum's "Let Your Dim Light Shine," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6247 after you hear the greeting.