There are bands. And there are albums. And then there’s Soundgarden: and there’s Superunknown.
It’s a testament to how much great music of genuinely enduring substance was being recorded and released 20 years ago that the term “20th anniversary” keeps cropping up in music journalism in regard to seminal albums that have more than stood the test of time.
I’ve written a couple of pieces on this blog along those lines, specifically in regard to Nirvana’s In Utero, and a couple of others. Soundgarden’s seminal 1994 album Superunknown is one of those era defining pieces of work that more than justifies the various coverage its 20th anniversary re-issues have garnered on-line and in the music press in the passed few months.
Put simply, it is a behemoth. And a benchmark.
Released at a highly volatile and sensitive time in the short “golden age” of the Seattle scene and the broader Alternative Rock scene, Superunknown is regarded as the album that cemented Soundgarden’s position as one of the four or five definitive rock acts of that rich musical era.
Having in the preceding few years been plying their trade somewhat in the shadow of fellow Seattle-linked acts Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s respective breakthrough commercial successes, Superunknown was the band’s first No.1 album and was the record that was seen to put Soundgarden into the same fully mainstream-conquering league as those aforementioned bands, despite the fact that they had pre-dated those acts.
And not just pre-dated; but largely paved the way for. Soundgarden preceded Nirvana at SubPop, and then Soundgarden’s signing to a major label was later also cited by Kurt Cobain as a justification for Nirvana signing to Geffen. Meanwhile, it’s questionable whether Pearl Jam would’ve existed as we knew them without Chris Cornell and the Temple of the Dog project.
If anyone could be called the godfathers or pioneers of that scene, it would be Soundgarden and Cornell.
Yet before Superunknown, there was a sense – in the media, at least – that Pearl Jam and Nirvana were the giants of the scene, and Soundgarden weren’t on that commercially relevant level yet. Even if its predecessor, Badmotorfinger, had already basically been a benchmark album of its time, it was Superunknown that confirmed Soundgarden both as commercial and artistic vanguard of the art.
None of that is musically relevant at all, it’s simply background and context.
I remember Superunknown being a big deal to me at the time. Although it was released in March 1994, I didn’t get around to hearing until a couple of months later, by which point Kurt Cobain had gone and Nirvana was finished and I was struggling to continue listening to the music I most loved, especially music associated with the grunge scene, Seattle and the Pacific North-West.
But I made it a point to listen to Superunknown; and I remember that it brought me back to the table, reinvigorating my desire to listen to music and to discover new music in general. That would’ve happened eventually anyway, but Soundgarden made it happen a lot quicker.
That band and that record were monumental to me: I bought that album on cassette tape the week it came out and I wore out that tape. And when I wrote a magazine column for a few years, I titled it ‘Superunknown’ (the column was about supernatural/paranormal phenomena: but I couldn’t resist getting the Soundgarden reference in).
To this day, there’s barely a day that goes by where I don’t have Black Hole Sun or The Day I Tried to Live in my head at some point.
In broader terms, there are probably multiple reasons why Superunknown holds such a powerful place in the musical landscape; possibly this is partly because of the time in which it was released, possibly it’s just how good and how substantial the songs are, or possibly because of the highly effective tunings and time signatures that permeate the record and give it its distinct, off-kilter vibe and unique sound.
It’s probably some mixture of those things: and more besides.
While I think both Badmotorfinger and Down on the Upside can be put on an equal footing with Superunknown, there’s just something entirely unique about Superunknown.
I think a big part of it is just the SOUND. Sonically, this album seems to exist in its own, singular space. It all just sounds so big and full and heavy. Some of this is obviously to be credited to the production.
But some of it also to how rich and how layered the composition of the songs is. The music and the interplay of the instruments is just so rich on a sonic level: and that’s before you even add in the special sauce of Chris Cornell’s ridiculously epic vocals.
There’s just no album by anyone that SOUNDS like this. This full and thick. And that’s without even talking about how diverse and how GOOD the songs are: a perfect or great sound technique or dynamic doesn’t make a great album in a vacuum – not without the inherently great or compelling songs to begin with.
Superunknown has both: in abundance.
And this thick, fulsome sound that permeates the album really embeds itself in the senses, a result of effective and versatile tunings and of expert production and mixing. All of that amplifies the key, central quality of course; which is that of a band performing at the peak of its powers.
Matt Cameron’s sturdy, dependable drum-meistery, Ben Shepard’s rich, fattened bass playing, the unmistakable guitar duality of Chris Cornell and the exquisite-sounding Kim Thayil, and of course Cornell’s powerful, inimitable vocals, all combining fluidly, seamlessly, to create a singular brand of rock magic that is both solid and expansive.
All four of them were involved in composition and contribution across the album, making it an ensemble collection in the truest sense. In Soundgarden, you can’t remove any of them from the equation – each is a vital component of what makes everything thrive.
Those unorthodox alternative tunings and odd time signatures are often mentioned when the album is discussed; Limo Wreck and 4th of July, two of the best, most original-sounding songs on the album, are both somewhat off-kilter compositions that somehow sound ‘wrong’ yet work beautifully.
They’re both brilliant songs, but I’m not sure why; they have an almost otherworldly quality to them, like music somehow a touch out of quantum synch with our universe. Or something like that.
Both those compositions have a decidedly low-vibrational quality, with very prominent bass and low tuning: they’re just very striking, especially the first time you hear them. And they’re two of Soundgarden’s very best compositions. But while Limo Wreck is a muscular slab of a rock song, 4th of July feels like you’re being dragged along with it in some weird, ineffable way.
In addition to its strangely slow, sluggish pace – and intense heaviness – 4th of July also is elevated by Cornell’s dual vocal tracks: he is basically acting as his own backing singer. There’s just a very singular and off-kilter nature to that track – and it makes it embed itself in your consciousness in a way that could even be described as slightly uncomfortable.
The two absolute standout compositions, in my opinion, are Black Hole Sun and The Day I Tried to Live.
Black Hole Sun is sublime, almost hymnal; a thick chunk of psychedelic rock ballad wizardry that is difficult to define. It’s the song most ordinary people most associate with Soundgarden – and it thoroughly deserves its iconic status in rock/pop culture.
But you get so used to a song like this – a song this famous – that you almost forget how insanely special it is. Until one day you listen to it with virginal ears again – and you’re blown away, as if re-experiencing it for the first time. The production is so perfect, the mix so immaculate, the wall of sound so full and layered – and the song itself just such a damn perfect composition – that Black Hole Sun really is a demonstration of how to create and produce the most immaculate, sublime music.
The way those guitars sing together, the way Matt Cameron’s drums keep the whole orchestra going, and the way that chorus repeats and repeats and penetrates into your brain… who even knows what Cornell is singing about? Cornell himself seems vague on the matter; I’ve read him say he was simply playing around with imagery and that the image or idea of a ‘black hole sun’ seemed interesting, evoking contradictory concepts of life-giving (the sun) and death-bringing (a black hole).
On the other hand, the sense of both longing and invocation evoked in the lyrics and in Cornell’s delivery are suggestive of something more. This is even more the case when you watch the iconic video: there’s certainly the sense that Cornell is summoning or beckoning the dark vortex to come and smite that mindless and decadent town and “wash away” all the vapid phoniness.
Either way, whether it was just a play on imagery or whether the meaning is more mystical and esoteric, Black Hole Sun is a masterpiece of musical composition.
And who could forget its video – one of the weirdest and best music videos of its time. The track also has the honour of having been parodied by Weird Al Yankovic; a true marker of cross-cultural penetration?
The Day I Tried To Live, meanwhile, is a colossus of gorgeously melodic perfection that nevertheless doesn’t sacrifice heaviness or fullness of sound. The way this song builds; the addictive bass riff, soon joined by Thayil’s sublime lead lines and morphing fluidly into Cornell’s escalating vocals, is just rock songwriting and composition at its most potent and perfect.
I honestly think The Day I Tried to Live might be my favorite Soundgarden song: and one of my four or five favorite songs of all time by anyone. The lyrics are incisive. Cornell’s vocals are epic, even by his standards.
And the interplay of each musician – each component – is so immaculate that it beggars belief. It flows and moves beautifully.
NO ONE makes music this good.
In fact, it has always baffled me why The Day I Tried to Live isn’t one of the most famous songs of its era. It should be. Everyone should know this song.
Even the stranger pieces, like Head Down (originating with Ben Shepherd and an apparent experimentation with odd drum patterns) are compellingly addictive in their subtle psychedelia. Head Down has an incredibly fluidity to it, as if it’s a living entity with its own inherent movements. It also has a beautifully exotic taste to it, in part due to its off-beat pacing and in part to do with Thayil’s eastern-sounding guitar flourishes.
There is for that matter a psychedelic feel to much of Superunknown: but no older psychedelic music from the past was ever at the same time THIS HEAVY. The juxtaposition is unique to Soundgarden: and particularly to Superunknown.
Even in the middle of the nineties it still felt half like something from the past and half like something innovative in its own era. But always its own thing. Nothing sounded like it: and no one sounded like Soundgarden. No one sings like Cornell. No one’s guitar playing sounds like Kim Thayil’s.
And no one’s combined sonic signature comes anywhere close to Soundgarden’s.
The other standout composition for me is Like Suicide: which is just a gorgeous, gradually-unfurling piece of sweet (or bittersweet) poetry, both musically and lyrically. It’s probably the most ‘commercial’ sounding thing on the record, but not in any negative sense.
It’s just a beautiful song: lyrically inspired, I seem to recall, by Cornell witnessing a bird injure itself on a window and then having to put the bird out of its misery. It has a feeling of Temple of the Dog to it; but with a distinct Soundgarden filter.
Drown Me and Spoonman are fat, heavy pieces of perfectly modulated hard rock. And Half is just weird – but an irresistible piece of eastern-tinged eccentricity.
Also, She Likes Surprises (which doesn’t appear on some tracklistings, but was on the cassette version of Superunknown I listened to as a teenager: was the final track, in fact) is just a delight: tuneful, fluid, heavy-as-fuck on the choruses, everything you could want.
Meanwhile the likes of My Wave and Kickstand are just classic hard-driven rock n roll in the best sense. And Alive in the Superunknown just rocks: makes you want to jump and stomp like an idiot.
Thematically regarded by some as a dark and even somewhat ‘depressing’ album, I’ve never really seen it that way. Maybe that’s because compared to Nirvana’s In Utero, which was heavily in my consciousness at that period in time, nothing is quite so dark. Certainly even compared to the gritty bleakness of Alice in Chains’s monumental Dirt album, nothing on Superunknown quite enters that degree of compulsive grimness and there’s nothing on the album I consider ‘depressing’: songs like My Wave and Alive in the Superunkown are actually upbeat stompers, while Spoonman is as lyrically and thematically cheerful and upbeat as you could get.
Even something as deceptively ‘depressed’ as The Day I Tried to Live (with its apparent implications of self-annihilation) often feels, in fact, like something more life-affirming.
In reference to the album’s lyrical themes, guitarist Kim Thayil once said that Superunknown seemed more “to be about life, not death”.
The closest thing to dark or bleak lyrics would be Fell on Black Days, which does feel like the most pronouncedly downcast song on the album; but even with this, I always react more to the extraordinarily honest and open nature to Cornell’s lyrics here: he sounds like he is baring his soul in those lyrics. It isn’t so much ‘dark’ or ‘depressing’ as it is honest and confessional.
You get so caught up in the sonic power of this album and the composition of these songs that you sometimes forget how good Cornell’s lyrics are. Lyrically, the aforementioned Day I Tried to Live always feels like something profound, almost defiant or triumphant: though it’s hard to pin it down precisely. It’s almost as if the song itself – sonically, along with Cornell’s vocals – are an expression of defiant triumph, while the lyrics themselves – paradoxically – seem sad and resigned. It’s a weird contradiction between sound and lyrical substance, which – whether by design or purely by accident – is sort of genius.
And it still always feels like there’s something deeply relevant trying to express itself in the enigmatic poetry of Black Hole Sun – though, again, it’s debatable what that is precisely.
Maybe Cornell likes it to remain ambiguous, mysterious or open to personal interpretation. That’s usually more compelling anyway.
Superunknown remains a monumental piece of work. In fact, it arrived that way in March 1994, fully formed: and has simply grown in stature in every year since.
It seems cliched to say it now, but those few years were something of a golden age in rock music, producing artists and albums with a caliber and quality that hasn’t been matched in the two decades since. Kurt Cobain once spoke of that generation’s moment as “the last great wave of rock music”; that statement felt valid even at the time, but it has acquired even more validity as we look back from our substance-starved 2014 vantage.
If that was the “last great wave”, as Kurt called it, then Soundgarden were at the crest of that wave, and Superunknown one of its most important entities.
Earlier this summer, Soundgarden celebrated the 20th anniversary of the album with a special reissue in two deluxe formats, featuring a remastered album and also including previously unreleased demos from the Superunknown sessions, as well as rehearsal recordings and B-sides, along with never-before-seen photography and reimagined album artwork.
It expands Superunknown’s legacy and its identity even further and provides a treasure-trove of material for fans to explore.
Meanwhile Soundgarden’s reforming has been a cause for celebration; having a band of that caliber and quality back in the studio and back on the road is a gift to the otherwise largely diminishing art of guitar-based music in the 21st century.
And the higher points of their comeback album King Animal, especially songs like ‘Been Away Too Long’ and ‘Bones of Birds’, demonstrate that Soundgarden can still roll back the years and seriously do the business; not just do the business, but do it with a quality and an authority that musicians and bands half their age don’t seem able to anymore.
Soundgarden are one of the greatest musical acts of all time – no argument.
And, rightly or wrongly, Superunknown will probably always be regarded as Soundgarden’s defining statement. As defining statements go, no one could want better. I will never, ever be bored of this album.