There’s always been something bewildering about Soul Asylum’s rise to fame in the ’90s, and Soul Asylum itself seemed the most bewildered. The multiplatinum success of 1992’s Grave Dancers Union—and its ubiquitous, Grammy-winning hit, “Runaway Train”—came 10 years into the band’s career, well after its better-known Minneapolis contemporaries, The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, had broken up during failed attempts to court the mainstream. Grunge helped push Soul Asylum’s scrappy, aching pop-rock to the fore, but Soul Asylum was no grunge band. Melodic, anthemic, and well-versed in the art of classic songcraft, leader Dave Pirner and crew were relatively polite and nondescript. One of Grave Dancers Union’s other hits, “Somebody To Shove,” felt more like a spoof of punk attitude than an expression of it. Likewise, Soul Asylum didn’t jerk its knee against success; it just pushed through it.
Soul Asylum has suffered more than its share of knocks since then, including critical indifference, long absences from the studio, and the 2005 death of founding bassist Karl Mueller. Delayed Reaction is the group’s first full-length since 2006’s The Silver Lining, which was Mueller’s last. With former Replacements (and Guns N’ Roses) bassist Tommy Stinson in the fold, Delayed Reaction has all the earmarks of a comeback. And it is—almost. “Gravity” breaks the disc open with a driving, distorted anthem full of hooks and Pirner’s ragged, tuneful growl. “Stranded, abandoned,” he laments, letting his unfinished thought trail off before kicking into another grin-inducing chorus. The gravity in question is righteously overcome, not succumbed to—and that euphoria carries over into the twang-warmed “Into The Light.” Soul Asylum’s influence on what became known as alt-country has long been overlooked, but here it’s restated in a terse, power-pop punch. There’s nothing here but a rehash of the band’s tried-and-true sound, only it’s delivered with confidence and conviction.
Another overlooked Soul Asylum perk: the guitar interplay between Pirner and lead guitarist Dan Murphy. When not locked in a pounding, rousing chord-fight—such as in the aggressively catchy “Let’s All Kill Each Other”—Murphy’s wobbly licks and cascading jangle add flavor to Pirner’s meat-and-potatoes riffs. Coming from a band whose best-known song is of the slow-and-smoldering variety, Delayed Reaction succeeds least in the ballad department. In particular, “Cruel Intentions”—a smoky, jazzy, piano-anchored torch song informed by Pirner’s residence in New Orleans—sounds more like a leftover from the singer’s lackluster 2002 solo album, Faces & Names. But those are minor lags. On “The Streets,” Pirner shoots for the high notes, gleefully misses them, and makes his already cracked voice crack even more. Breathlessly, he rushes through a love letter to a girl who “keeps me off the streets”—and it’s the most raw, exuberantly youthful thing Soul Asylum has pumped out since 1988’s Hang Time, when the group was riding high on its first major-label contract, yet to discover it still had a long, hard grind ahead.
“Success is not so sweet,” Pirner sings in The Silver Lining track of the same name—released in 2006 but written in the ’90s at the height of Soul Asylum’s fame. Soon after it came out, Pirner joked in an A.V. Club interview, “We’d love to come play for you. If you’d be so kind as to let us.” It’s a heartening dose of humility from a band that never seemed short on it in the first place. With Delayed Reaction, whatever lingering bewilderment and bitterness Pirner felt about success seems to have vanished. In its place is a classic Soul Asylum record: scrappy, aching, and only a little worse for the wear.