CANDY FROM A STRANGER
Soul Asylum is just as known for its one smash hit, "Runaway Train," as its lead singer, David Pirner, is known for having once dated actress Winona Ryder. At the height of Soul Asylum's popularity, "Runaway Train" was so famous that the band was invited to perform it at the White House for President Clinton. Sadly, after its grand entrance onto the music scene, Soul Asylum has not been able to produce another best-seller: David Pirner and Winona Ryder have long since broken up, and the band seemed to fade into obscurity.
With Soul Asylum's new album, Candy from a Stranger, one cannot really comprehend why Soul Asylum faded so fast. Candy from a Stranger is not a bad album--in fact, it is quite good. After all, what is there not to like about Soul Asylum? Their lyrics are admirable, the music is interesting, and Pirner has a relatively unique voice. Yet, despite all the goodness of the new album, somehow Soul Asylum has not been able to distinguish itself from other one-hit wonder grunge-y bands; Pirner and the band have been unable to really make their mark because their music is simply so pleasant. Passion-inspiring tunes or raw emotions are nowhere to be found on Candy from a Stranger, but, rather, one will hear a garden variety of songs dealing with the pains of love, teenage angst and the like.
Candy from a Stranger certainly possesses several well-done songs, while the rest of the album is mushed together in a string of undistinguished melodies and choruses. For example, the songs "Close" and "No Time for Waiting" are both extremely reminiscent of Broadway ballads. Although "Close" has a grabbing opening guitar line, it soon is overtaken by whininess and sounds too much like it should be sung on the Great White Way, not at a grunge concert. "No Time for Waiting" also feels like a showtune--it is too cartoonish, with no reality to its emotions. Perhaps these two songs would fare well as inspirational (read: cheesy) Broadway songs, but for listeners expecting depth, they do not make the cut by a long shot.
But Soul Asylum is clearly not unable to produce songs with true emotions: Witness "I Will Still Be Laughing," one of the best songs on the album. "I Will Still Be Laughing" grips the listener with its powerful start and does not dissolve into whining or cliches, as do most of the songs on Candy from a Stranger. Dealing with the ups and downs of teenage life, "I Will Still Be Laughing" sings of bitter revenge, but does so in a realistic and interesting way, rather than rehashing the stereotype of the angry teenager who hates the world. The song portrays teenage life as a cycle, not a downward spiral, and therefore has no reason to become overly bitter or cynical, nor overly cheesy. It feels like an objective memoir, not colored to be happy or sad, but rather of the stuff that life is made of: pain, pleasure, beauty, anger and, most of all, uncertainty. Consider some of these lyrics: "They're all laughing at your clothes/standing in the lunch line," and then "Face down in a stranger's tomb/didn't know you were dying/and you rise and you fall/and you wait for the call.
The call he is singing of is most likely the call of adulthood, a voice telling the uncertain adolescent protagonist what to do, where to go, who to become. Yet that call--as we all know--will never come, as there comes a point in each person's life when he or she must make that difficult call, all alone. Soul Asylum has managed to capture the teenage sense of loneliness, fear and desperation in this mature, strong song. It is hard not to appreciate "I Will Still Be Laughing," as it appeals to almost everyone's sense of alienation as an adolescent. The lyrics are gripping, the music is excellent, and the song as a whole is so good that it make the rest of the album something of a disappointment.
Not very other song is disappointing, though. "Draggin the Lake," much more bitter than "I Will Still Be Laughing," is still worth-while. "Draggin the Lake" escapes the cookiecutter emotions found in "Close," "No Time for Waiting" and others. The emotions within "Draggin the Lake," are fueled perhaps by the public's cruel treatment of Soul Asylum after the hype over "Runaway Train" faded: "Sent on a mission to find out/just how much shit one man can take" is the jarring opening line of the song. Unfortunately, the song tumbles down the path towards over-clicheed lyrics after its stunning start. The music still manages to be catchy but the song just could have been much better were it not so trite.
Finally, "New York Blackout," much like "Draggin the Lake," is a song which has some great elements and potential to be truly excellent. "New York Blackout" makes a fantastic use of percussion and guitar, and the song starts powerfully, developing well with an interesting guitar line and melody. Sadly, each time the tune becomes really worthwhile, it stops, gets slow and whines until it picks up more momentum. The best way to describe "New York Blackout" is to say that it is enjoyable--good at some points, cheesy at others, but not quite enough to be a Broadway tune.
On the whole, Candy from a Stranger is an album with some songs that manage to stand out. Generally, the songs sound very similar and are each tinged with bitterness in their own way. Candy from a Stranger is recommended, but do not expect much more than the occasional show of true emotion. We will still have to wait and see if Soul Asylum can move past its one-hit status, and Candy from a Stranger is certainly a step in the right direction away from that stigma, without erasing it.