Looking Back

Soul Asylum’s Grave Dancers Union at 30

We take a look back at Soul Asylum's wildly successful 1992 album and its era-defining hit single, 'Runaway Train'

It’s almost like Soul Asylum didn’t get the memo. Minneapolis alternative rock wasn’t supposed to be successful. It was supposed to be respected and cultishly adored (see: The Replacements, Hüsker Dü) but it wasn’t supposed to end up in the charts. And the frontman was absolutely not supposed to wind up dating a Hollywood A-lister.

Starting life as Loud Fast Rules before changing their name in 1983, Soul Asylum were instantly ingrained in Minneapolis folklore. If you listen to the recording of the police breaking up a gig that opens The Replacements’ ‘Kids Don’t Follow’, that’s frontman Dave Pirner enthusiastically shouting “F**k you, man!” at the weary police officer who just wants the kids to go home so he doesn’t have to arrest anyone.

Soul Asylum - Cartoon

Early records hewed close to Hüsker Dü’s breakneck, buzzsaw punk – Soul Asylum even enlisting Bob Mould as producer – right up until the band made a surprise leap to the big leagues via A&M for 1988’s Hang Time. Once there, their newly discovered melodic core – especially on ‘Sometime To Return’ and ‘Cartoon’ – proved a premonition of the direction that would lead to huge success.

The band’s follow-up And The Horse They Rode In On tried to expand on this more melodic, contemplative edge with varying degrees of success, but Soul Asylum absolutely nailed it on the second attempt. Grave Dancers Union landed in October 1992 and turned the band’s world upside down. The ferocious guitars had been sharpened to a point and the band’s sloppy attack tightened up and smoothed out. On top of that, Pirner delivered his best and most varied set of songs, from raging rockers like ‘Somebody To Shove’ to sensitive acoustic ballads tailor-made for radio and MTV.

Soul Asylum - Somebody to Shove (Official HD Video)

Chief among the latter was the song that would break the band internationally. ‘Runaway Train’ is a tastefully produced slice of acoustic melancholia, filled with disaffected lyrics like, “Called you up in the middle of the night, like a firefly without a light”, catnip for an entire generation’s malaise. It’s easy to mock as an example of 90s alt rock earnestness, but from the effectively simple melody to Pirner’s heartfelt ennui, it’s hard to fault. My son was born 24 years after it was a hit and he sings the chorus every time he plays with his train set. It also started a trend for sensitive acoustic ballads that would prove equally effective for the likes of the Goo Goo Dolls, Live and Bush.

The video was almost as big as the song itself, a relatively new phenomenon in 1992. Directed by Tony Kaye (American History X), it primarily featured pictures of missing children with a number to call at the end. As both a humanitarian venture and a promotional video, it was hugely successful. Twenty-six children featured in the video were located, including one as far away as Australia. Whatever your feelings about 90s alternative rock ballads, you can’t argue with the intentions or the result.

Soul Asylum - Runaway Train (Official HD Video)

If ‘Runaway Train’ has overshadowed the rest of Grave Dancers Union and Soul Asylum as a whole, it’s something of a shame. It’s easily forgotten that two other singles from the record broke the UK Top 40: ‘Black Gold’ and ‘Somebody To Shove’. The latter is Soul Asylum doing what they do best – even better than they do acoustic ballads. It’s a slickly produced shot of adrenaline and probably a bracing recalibration of expectations for anyone who bought the record off the back of its biggest single. It’s also hugely fun, which pokes holes in the idea of the band as sad-eyed slackers. ‘Black Gold’ alternates between the band’s two extremes, sweetly acoustic and corrosively fired-up in a pretty effective dichotomy.

If there’s a shoulda been on Grave Dancers Union, it’s ‘Without A Trace’. One of the band’s catchiest songs, it takes Pirner’s loser persona to comedic extremes, with its tale of a no-hoper who falls for a prostitute, joins the Mafia and becomes a New Orleans funeral dancer, failing at all three. When you hold it up to similar jangling rockers that took hold around the time, it’s a mystery that ‘Without A Trace’ didn’t. Similarly, the swaying ‘Homesick’ and ‘New World’ have the simple melodies and earnest acoustic balladry of ‘Runaway Train’ but not the je-ne-sais-quoi that made the latter so huge.

Soul Asylum - Without a Trace (Official HD Video)

In the wake of Grave Dancers Union’s double Platinum success, Soul Asylum’s path was laid out for them. Their two contributions to the Sweet Relief benefit compilations (covers of Victoria Williams’ ‘Summer Of Drugs’ and Vic Chesnutt’s ‘When I Ran Off And Left Her’) saw them embracing their quiet, twangy side further.

Around the same time, guitarist Dan Murphy formed alt-country supergroup Golden Smog with members of The Jayhawks and Wilco, writing that band’s superb country rocker ‘Ill Fated’, which also featured Pirner on vocals. When Soul Asylum returned with Let Your Dim Light Shine in 1994, the spotlight might have moved on, but they sounded more content in their own skin on songs like ‘Promises Broken’ and ‘Just Like Anyone’ than they ever did as a punk band.

Soul Asylum - Just Like Anyone (Official Video)

To some casual onlookers, the band’s legacy might appear as one of 90s alt rock one-hit wonders, but Grave Dancers Union and ‘Runaway Train’ really illuminated Soul Asylum’s route to longevity. They never hit the same commercial heights again, but neither are they dining out off one hit into infinity. They’re respected elder statesmen of rootsy alternative, a band that knows who they are and has never embarrassed themselves by trying to be anything else. If anything, they proved themselves less a runaway train and more the little engine that could.

Get tickets for Soul Asylum’s November 2022 UK dates here