After spending the better part of a decade as the sloppy little brother band that lived in the shadow of Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, Soul Asylum unexpectedly became the commercial breakthrough act on the Minneapolis rock scene after 1992's Grave Dancer's Union moved two million copies, something their hipper contemporaries never achieved. However, Soul Asylum's success seemed cursed in some small way -- after the commercial and critical disappointment of 1995's Let Your Dim Light Shine, the band never regained their hard-won momentum, and the band either broke up or went on hiatus (depending on who tells the tale) after 1998's Candy from a Stranger arrived with a thud. It didn't help that the band's mainstream following came and went rather quickly, while the indie rock hipsters were almost immediately turned off by Grave Dancer's Union's polished and professional sound. The Silver Lining is the first album of new Soul Asylum material in eight years, and its appearance is made bittersweet by the fact the band's longtime bassist and founding member, Karl Mueller, succumbed to throat cancer before it could be completed (he plays on four tracks; Tommy Stinson of the Replacements is one of several stand-in bassists on the other eight tunes). Given the difficult circumstances behind The Silver Lining, it's hard not to wish that this band could triumph over adversity and pull off a hard-rockin' return to form. Musically, The Silver Lining almost makes it; this disc leans to the poppier side of the band's musical personality rather than the sloppy punk-hard rock hybrid of their best work (think "Runaway Train" rather than "Spinnin'"), but Dan Murphy's guitar work is spot on as always, new drummer Michael Bland fits the band much better than Sterling Campbell (who signed on with the group following the success of Grave Dancer's Union), and a few of the tracks musically and emotionally build up a solid head of steam that rolls over any reservations. But the sad truth is Dave Pirner's songs ultimately sink this album -- his rock gestures sound a bit rote, he seems most interested in sunshiny numbers that just don't suit the group's sound, and his lyrics are as clichéd as titles like "Crazy Mixed Up World," "Success Is Not So Sweet," and "Bus Named Desire" would lead you to expect (the fact he sings them with such passion and sincerity somehow makes them sound even worse). The Silver Lining suggests that Soul Asylum might still have another great album in them (especially if Murphy does more of the songwriting), but this one certainly isn't it.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming