Review Summary: Though Soul Asylum's 'Let Your Dim Light Shine' was seen as a disappointing follow-up to their 1992 breakout record 'Grave Dancers Union', it's actually a more remarkable record that isn't afraid to take risks or experiment along the way.
I grew up on Soul Asylum. Some of my very first memories of music in general were when my mom would play some of the songs and videos from their 1992 album Grave Dancers Union
, which launched the formerly obscure Minnesotan rock band to quite a large level of success for a short time in the 90s. I remember being creeped out by the seemingly milk-carton inspired PSA/video for Runaway Train as a 7-year-old kid, just wondering… what if that happened to me? I never really listened much on my own to Soul Asylum, but I recall them being played quite frequently on long car rides, hearing the probably LimeWire downloaded rips of “Homesick” and “Without a Trace” coming through the blown-out speakers of our Isuzu.
I’d never heard the entirety of Grave Dancers Union
until I played it fully for the first time last year. Hearing the songs that my mom would play brought back a lot of memories while there were intriguing songs on the record as well that I hadn’t actually listened to before, though it was mostly all in the vein of the grunge movement that was taking over pop culture in the early 90s. Groups from Seattle such as Soundgarden and Alice in Chains broke into the public consciousness as Nirvana’s sophomore release Nevermind
pretty much rewrote the direction that rock would take for the next decade.
Unsurprisingly, this prompted many bands to follow the grunge-dominated trend in rock music at the time. Radiohead’s debut record Pablo Honey
was seen as Britain’s attempt to create the next Nirvana: even down to singer Thom Yorke’s long, blonde hair at the time. Soul Asylum, although they’d existed in various forms since 1981, was also seen in that light – Dave Pirner didn’t really sound like Kurt Cobain, but he sure did embody the same aesthetic. Grave Dancers Union
was the sound of a band doing all they could to survive and to create a mainstream record that would get on MTV.
And it worked… for a while. When Kurt Cobain took a loaded shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger, it also put a symbolic end to the momentum of the grunge movement that had been commercialized and repackaged 20 times over by that point. While some groups were able to survive – Soundgarden released their critically acclaimed Superunknown
in the same year while Pearl Jam is still trudging along today, others, such as Soul Asylum, never were able to recapture the same amount of success that they had at their peak.
A year later, Soul Asylum released their follow-up to Grave Dancers Union
, Let Your Dim Light Shine
. Although it produced their final hit single, “Misery”, it didn’t sell nearly as many copies or gain the same critical acclaim as Grave Dancers Union
. Maybe people had just decided they were tired of Soul Asylum by this point – Grave Dancers Union
wasn’t really a masterpiece in its own right and Let Your Dim Light Shine
wasn’t either. But look beyond the self-loathing, grunge-by-numbers “Misery” and you’ll see some actually… experimental stuff here?
Not all of Let Your Dim Light Shine
truly works, but when it does, it’s something to behold. I don’t actually dislike “Misery” – it’s a pretty great grunge song with a nice hook that actually does what it’s supposed to do quite well, but it’s nothing really like the other material on the record. The album vacillates between boot-stomping rock like on “Bittersweetheart”, which sounds like it should be played in a bar with flickering signage somewhere in a small town in the middle of nowhere in Texas, to “Caged Rat” – a more experimental track that somehow sounds so wrong yet so incredibly right at the same time. It doesn’t really make any sense at all, but it all glues together in a way where it feels like it does.
“Promises Broken” is an acoustic ballad that returns to the sound previously explored by Grave Dancers Union
to impeccable results – this is really one of Soul Asylum’s best and most underrated tracks, while “To My Own Devices” sounds so Southern and twangy that I’d go as far as considering it to be a well-done country track. However, some of their experiments don’t work just as well – though it’s by far the most adventurous song on Let Your Dim Light Shine
, it took a few listens to “String of Pearls” to get through wince-inducing lyrics like “and the sack breaks and out come the Siamese twins/who grow up to become the first President with two heads”, and the sappy “Eyes of a Child” is only saved by Dave Pirner’s best vocal performance on the entire record, which, somehow, evokes a bit of Janis Joplin to my ears.
There’s actually sort of a lyrical theme going on throughout the whole of Let Your Dim Light Shine
- tales of the lives of ordinary, hard-working Americans which feels sort of like the American equivalent to another record that came out across the pond later that same year – Blur’s The Great Escape
. “Eyes of a Child”, as I said before, still does sound quite a bit sappy to my ears, but the writing in “Child” and a few of the other songs on Let Your Dim Light Shine
employ similar character studies which are found in many of The Great Escape
’s songs as well, such as “Country House” and “Mr. Robinson’s Quango” to quite an impressive effect.
Although I’d argue Let Your Dim Light Shine
on the whole is a more inconsistent listen than its predecessor, I’d still say it offers up a more rewarding experience due to its experimentation and its willingness to break from the grunge mold that was expected from Soul Asylum at the time. After this album, Soul Asylum took a different route – making some of the blandest, anodyne “rock” possible on 1998’s truly terrible Candy from a Stranger
and disappearing into almost-complete obscurity after that. It’s a shame they did – Let Your Dim Light Shine
is a truly great alternative rock record that isn’t afraid to adventure out into parts unknown, taking risk after risk along the way.