Soul Asylum - Made to Be Broken
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It’s got to be one of the more ironic moments in rock history: Dave Pirner, acoustic guitar in hand, singing—clearly to himself—“Where will you be in 1993? / Still sitting in the same chair,” on “Never Really Been,” the song at the emotional and temporal center of Soul Asylum’s 1986 album Made to Be Broken. Ironic, of course, because 1993 would see the band transition from perennial Minneapolis second-stringers who walked in the footsteps of the Replacements and Hüsker Dü to multi-platinum superstars who played the White House lawn and dated Winona Rider (just Pirner, not the band). And ironic because Made to Be Broken was essentially an album dedicated to preemptive retrospective weariness at failure by a band so certain of its own futility that it could already see itself looking back at its inevitable lack of success and shrugging in resignation.
As such, the album taps into a potent spirit of underdog defeatism; it’s the sound of watching the tour bus through the window of the cramped van, gazing at the hotel en route to the fan’s couch or floor, and imagining a bath while showering in a sink. It is, in short, not far in spirit from the ‘Mats or in sound from the Hüskers (Bob Mould produced, which explains the familiar muddy sound and sometimes multitracked vocals). Or in some respect, from Rodney Dangerfield, which is why Made to Be Broken—and Soul Asylum in general—merits a second thought. Hipsters may love to hate the band, knowing them only from some MTV video about missing children, but in fact Soul Asylum deserves a place in the pantheon of 1980s indie rock. Success may have spared Dave Pirner a life of mindless day jobs, but it ruined his chances at canonization alongside his peers as the unrewarded vanguard cadre of alternative rock—no chapter in Our Band Could Be Your Life for these guys. Nothing but “one-hit wonder” sneers awaited this band (when I was in Nashville in the summer of 2003, they played a glorified beer tent for $5); they expected even less, but deserved so much more.
Made to Be Broken announces itself with “Tied to the Tracks,” which quickly taps into the theme: “Don’t you remember the years,” Pirner asks from some bleak future, “We got nowhere, we got nowhere.” Versatile guitarist Dan Murphy assists with a solo emphasizing the Midwestern virtues of craftsmanship and economy (I say this not with condescension but as a displaced Minnesotan forced to grow up in rural Alaska, a condition that admittedly inspired a romanticization of all things from the land of 10,000 lakes). The song closes with a chord left fading as Pirner wonders, “Do you think you can find a place for my dreams?” Next, “Ship of Fools” inverts the formula—a soaring guitar line precedes lurching chords rather than follows them—to equal effect, as Pirner deploys his penchant for rendering fresh the shopworn clichés of the hard-knock life with a story of sailors enjoying a night of drunken relief before killing each other in a fight. Paul Westerberg himself couldn’t have said it better: “I can’t change the world by complaining / You can’t change it with a kiss.”
Soul Asylum break out their secret weapon for “Can’t Go Back”: Dan Murphy. Though the guitar player spent most of his time playing backup to Pirner, he was good for about one songwriting contribution per album, almost always a highlight (see “Cartoon” on Hang Time or “Gullible’s Travels” on . . . And the Horse They Rode in On for further examples). This is no exception, a look at the band “fifteen years later, caught in time’s incinerator,” accepting minor-key lives: “the good times are so near, just sitting back and drinking beer.” It’s all set to a great melody so basic it’s practically archetypal, a sort of proto-alt-country tune that could well have inspired two high school kids a few states south to put away their punk records and form Uncle Tupelo.
Murphy also warns “Everything’s so true to life when you’re not living,” and the album’s title track picks up where he leaves off to debunk a myth about the indie-rock minor league: fame may elude you, but surely the abundant sex and drugs compensate? Not according to Pirner, who sounds weary as ever, telling an unnamed conquest “Guess I’ll be leavin’ in the morning,” then wondering if it’s “just these drugs I’m feeling.” The fairly insipid chorus (“rules are made to be broken”) turns into sarcastic self-deprecation: like Don DeLillo’s Bucky Wunderlick before him or the DeLillo-name-dropping Conor Oberst after him, Pirner criticizes the conventions of rock-star behavior even as he indulges in them. Unlike either, though, Pirner in 1986 was far from stardom, and the doped-up groupie-grabbing of his lyrics fills out the album’s theme with the transient Pyrrhic victories of a losing struggle.
“Never Really Been” further extends the idea, complete with more ironic self-deflation (“You were thinking I was distressed about some universe oppressed / But I was just depressed about my last pinball game”). This time Pirner gets so choked up with emotion that he starts sobbing out lyrics. But unlike fellow 1980s weeper Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, it’s impossible to tell if Pirner is putting us on (clearly, the aforementioned Nebraskan took some notes), and Soul Asylum follows the subdued song with the spastic thrash of “Whoa!” A garage-metal riff, incoherent screaming, and a bizarre falsetto chorus elevate the song past demented to deranged; Soul Asylum’s dream need not be deferred to explode. The ‘Mats tried something like this by putting a Kiss cover after “Androgynous” on Let It Be, but that contrast pales in comparison.
“Whoa!” provides Made to Be Broken’s catharsis point; it’s all downhill from there, though some clunkers on the second half detract little from the ramshackle splendor of an album that clocks in at just over a half hour. The same themes resonate throughout the subsequent tracks, making for a remarkably cohesive declaration of surrender. Soul Asylum would go on to release a steady string of strong albums (for my money, the only real downer being final studio album Candy From a Stranger, though they wisely followed it with a live album from a high-school prom at which they played not just their own menage-a-your-girlfriend ballad “We 3,” but also their cover of “Sexual Healing,” showing their subversive sense of humor persisted longer than their stardom), but never again would they tap into quite the same combination of prematurely jaded defeatism and youthful hunger (heard not in the lyrics but in the band’s noisy, eager performance). It isn’t rules, but dreams, that are Made to Be Broken, and this album is the sound of Soul Asylum trying to break theirs before the world could—the better, of course, to secretly preserve them. And then have them trashed.
By: Whitney Strub
Published on: 2006-04-04
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