Runaway Train (1992)

Soul Asylum

Written by David Pirner
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Runaway Train Soul Asylum main“Runaway Train” rises to the level of a great Rock song for many reasons. Chief among them is that its poignant, well-crafted lyrics are open to multiple interpretations, sliding on a scale from the ridiculous to the sublime. Nevertheless, the words mean a lot of different things to many people.

A mesmerizing rhythm guitar; a strong, if familiar and friendly back beat drum and the plaintive tone of its vocals, have helped “Runaway Train” to grow in stature and depth over its life. The Grammy Awards recognized it as the year’s best song at the 1994 awards, although the album it is featured on, Grave Dancers Union, was released in 1992. The single was officially released in ’93, making it eligible the following year.

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“Runaway Train” falls into the long tradition of the branch of Folk Rock that encompasses groups such as The Byrds; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in their lighter work; Bob Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding”; and even the Marshall Tucker Band’s Can’t You See,” which reaches altogether different heights due to Toy Caldwell’s emotional guitar playing.

The opening verse poses to us a sad soul who has let slip away a love. He proceeds to contact her at an hour where nothing good ever goes down. We know from the start he is hurt, desperate:

Call you up in the middle of the night
Like a firefly without a light
You were there like a slow torch burning
I was a key that could use a little turning

He goes on to confess to her and the listener that he can’t keep promises, a long string of lost opportunities part of his make-up. Somehow, this chapter is worse, though; he tells us, This time I have really led myself astray.

Indeed, as we will find out, this habit of bad behavior extends to his choices concerning his mode of travel. Meanwhile, underneath, in a slow, insistent way, the song’s music builds dramatically, guitars tracked over one another to help punch out the chorus, which is in each succeeding version a variation of:

Runaway train never going back
Wrong way on a one way track
Seems like I should be getting somewhere
Somehow I’m neither here nor there

Runaway TrainThe confessional disclosures begin to grow in scope until we become aware of a full-blown depressive episode that drives him to seek distance. Power chords from the lead electric sound far away, mixed almost into oblivion, piling on the notion of helplessness. The plaintiveness in the voice turns into a soulful plea:

Can you help me remember how to smile
Make it somehow all seem worthwhile

As “Runaway Train” closes – well, as it slams shut – he draws himself as one who:

Bought a ticket for a runaway train
Like a madman laughin’ at the rain
Little out of touch, little insane
Just easier than dealing with the pain

Some have interpreted the burnin’ in my veins of the final chorus to be a reference to heroin addiction. And, if you’ve had trouble with drugs, the square peg of the whole song can kinda-sorta-maybe be forced into that round hole of addiction. Others feel the song is about capital-D depression.

But it just seems really sad, this unfolding of the story of a person who has sabotaged his entire life and, as the music cues us to understand, rides away on the runaway train he himself bought the ticket for, boarded, and now cannot get off of. Self-delusion, self-destruction and self-denial all seated in the dark club car.

The strumming and sound levels get weaker and weaker until the music fades out completely. “Runaway Train” is a brilliant explication of a burned out, bungled love affair and its destructive aftermath.

  • Soul Asylum performed “Runaway Train” at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993.
  • It was Soul Asylum’s only real hit single. But, although enduring much travail, the band has managed to be an innovative Alt Rock ensemble since 1981.