Every now and then the rock pool needs a dash of chlorine. By the late 70s, progressive rock had become an pretentious wasteland of keyboards and wizards, so punk came along to return rock to its most pure form. By the mid-80s punk rock had burnt itself out and in its place came New Wave and the abomination that was ‘Hair Metal’.
Thankfully in the university town of Seattle on the north Pacific coast of America a bunch of angery kids raised on punk, old school metal and influenced by the alternative ‘college rock’ scene of bands like Husker Du & R.E.M. were preparing to blow the music world apart. This new genre – a combination of punk aesthetics, metal guitar tones and alt-rock melodies – was given the appropriate name of Grunge.
Even those who have never heard the term Grunge know of its charismatic, reluctant figurehead Kurt Cobain & his band Nirvana. But, Nirvana were only one of many Seattle bands trying to re-shape rock. As with Thrash Metal in the early 80s, Grunge soon had its own “Big Four”; four bands who between them embodied what the genre was all about. They were Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam and another, sometimes ignored group, called Soundgarden.
Soundgarden were one of the elder statesmen of the grunge scene having formed in 1984. There first two albums – Ultramega OK (1988) & Louder Than Love (1989) – were closer in style to hardcore punk stripped down heavy metal, but were highly influential on the grunge scene. In 1991 the band released their first true Grunge effort Badmotorfinger. That album gained the group recognition beyond Seattle with its singles; including the thunderously blasphemous ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ and the stampeding, rift-driven ‘Rusty Cage’ (later covered by the great Johnny Cash). Their next effort combined all the heaviness of the first two records with the alt. rock influences of Badmotorfinger.
The album was called Superunknown and would go down in history alongside Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991), Pearl Jam’s Ten (1991) & Alice In Chain’s Dirt (1992) as one of the select few albums to stand the rigors of time and still stand up today as a classic not just of the Grunge era, but of the entire history of rock music.
Superunknown runs 70 minutes and features 15 songs. Here are my top three.
First up is perhaps the bands signature tune, or at least, the one that most rock fans would have come across on countless 90s playlists; the apocalyptic ‘Black Hole Sun’. One of the most conventionaly structured songs on the album, ‘Black Hole Sun’ is lead singer Chris Cornell’s attempt to put into words his views on the nature of society, the birth & destruction of the universe and his own melancholy. However, this is not a self-pitying number, nor a cry for help like some of his Grunge counterparts. Cornell stated himself that “Writing [‘Black Hole Sun’] made me feel better”. It is cathartic yes, but not hopeless.
Next up is ‘My Wave’. This song acts is an ode to living life to the fullest and letting others do as they please – so long of course as it does not negativly effect others. Featuring bouncing rifts from Cornell and Kim Thayil, this song showcases the bands more radio-friendly hard rock side, sounding something more akin to the work of contemporaries Pearl Jam. The track can perhaps be summed up by the repeated reprise of “Save it just keep it off my wave“.
Lastly is the seminal track ‘The Day I Tried To Live’. It was well known before his tragic suicide in May 2017 that Cornell suffered from bouts of sever depression throughout his life. While there are many songs in the Soundgarden back-catalouge that cover this subject, it is this track that best exemplifies Cornell’s rare ability to portray his enui in a way that connects with the listener. In this regard Cornell is in illustrious company with the likes of Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen as a master of taking inner pain and making something beautiful with it. Drummer Matt Cameron and bass player Ben Shepherd are at their best on this track, with the deeper tones reflecting the dark nature of the lyrics. This track is a testimony to what it feels like to be in the grips of depression. You know the only way to break the isolation is to go out, meet people and live a full life, but unfortunatly, the nature of depression means this can feel impossible. “A voice was in my head. It said seize the day. Pull the trigger, drop the blade & watch the rolling heads”. Bleak, but this is followed by the line “One more time around might do it”. This is Cornell saying that even if you fall down today, always get back on your feet. The next time around might be better.
‘The Day I Tried To Live’ alongside its’ sister track ‘Fell On Black Days’ and the now hard to listen to ‘Like Suicide’ are among the finest examples of how to represent feelings of despair & melancholy without feeling like the singer is simply unloading their troubles on you.
Soundgarden released six albums in total across a twenty-four year period but they never quite reached the musical or lyrical heights of Superunkown. Sadly of course, the band is no more. Following Cornell’s death the group made the sad but, I feel correct call, to disband.
While Alice In Chains managed to continued after the death of Layne Stayley by bringing in William DuVall, that simply would not be an option for Soundgarden. They are all highly talented musicians in their own right, but Cornell was the beating heart of all that made that band so unique. No other singer could match Cornell’s vocal range nor his ability to transmit his sorrow through his words.
Soundgarden are now a band for the ages and although Cornell is gone, new generations will continue to discover his music and his legacy will live on.
Last modified: 19th February 2020