Runaway Train rises to the level of a great 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.
Coupled with a mesmerizing rhythm guitar; a strong, if commonplace, back beat drum backing and the plaintive tone of its vocals, Runaway Train seems to have 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.
Runaway Train falls in the long tradition of the branch of folk rock that encompasses groups such as The Byrds; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ lighter work; Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding; and even the Allman Brothers’ Can’t You See, which reaches altogether different heights due to Duane Allman’s guitar.
The opening verse poses to us a sad soul who has evidently let slip away a love, who he proceeds to contact 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 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
The confessor’s 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 the song 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 or been through a heroin intervention, the round peg of the whole song can kinda-sorta-maybe be forced into that square 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.
The strumming and sound levels get weaker and weaker until the music fades out completely. Runaway Train is a brilliant explication of a love affair and its destructive aftermath.
This song by Soul Asylum is titled Runaway Train and was named Song of the Year at the 1994 Grammy Awards, making it one of the most notable songs of the 1990s. As noted in the commentary, there is sometimes an association between this song and heroin addiction due to the words within a small portion of the lyrics.
If you have ended up on this song in error and were seeking information about drug addiction or drug interventions, start your search for professional intervention info here.