While Nirvana brought “grunge” and alternative rock to the mainstream, it was Soundgarden, along with Mudhoney and Green River (the precursor to Mudhoney) that, along with others, helped create the “grunge” sound. The band spent much of the 80s playing to enthusiastic audiences and building up a fan base. The band’s early work, like “Screaming Life” (1987) and “Ultramega OK” (1988) saw a real Sabbath and Stooges influence, and while this influence remained, the band started to get a more refined and metallic edge as they progressed, with “Louder than Love” (1989) and “Badmoterfinger” (1991). In the spring of 1994, at the twilight of the Seattle grunge era, Soundgarden unleashed what would be their masterpiece “Superunknown.”
To the general, fickle public that followed whatever was the flavor-of-the-week, Soundgarden’s 1994 smash album “Superunknown” may have seemed to come out of left-field. While Soundgarden’s pervious, top-40 album “Badmoterfinger” (1991) as well as a high profile tour with Guns N’ Roses and props from Kurt Cobain may have put the band firmly on the map, it was “Superunknown” that made Soundgarden one of rock’s premier bands of the 90s.
“Superunknown” takes up where “Badmoterfinger” left off, but “Superunknown” is less metallic, and there is a greater focus on melody with a noticeable Beatles influence present. In addition, the scope of the band’s sound is expanded with the appearance of guest musicians (cello, viola, piano). While some fans of the band’s earlier work may have perceived Soundgarden becoming more “commercial” or loosing their edge, this isn’t really a fair argument. “Superunknown” was really the next logical step for Soundgarden to take as it saw the band mature and branch out artistically, without loosing its edge.
Guitarist Kim Thayil is one of rock’s more underrated guitar players. Creating riffs that are heavy but melodic; he is equal parts George Harrison and Tony Iommi. Singer Chris Cornell, widely recognized as one of rock’s great vocalists, could belt out the songs with pure, unadulterated emotion, without overdoing it, and leave a lasting impression. Ben Shepard (bass) and Matt Cameron (drums) provided an exciting and dynamic rhythm section that was several cuts above average (they also contributed to the songwriting as well).
The opening “Let Me Drown” sounds a bit like an updated version of Sabbath’s “The Mob Rules,” and gets the album off to a breakneck start. The subtle piano adds an interesting and unexpected touch. One of the album’s big hits and a modern-rock radio staple, the infectious “My Wave” is heavily groove oriented and melodic. The gloomy “Fell on Black Days” is harrowing without indulging in self-pity. The album only gets bleaker with the sluggish “Mailman,” as Cornell sings in almost a whimper “I know I’m headed for the bottom.” The meaning of the hard-hitting title-track “Superunknown” is rather obscure, which adds a bit of mystery to the album without coming off as pretentious. The album takes a bit of a left-turn with the George Harrison-esque; Eastern flavored “Head Down,” which is an interesting and captivating change of pace. The album’s biggest hit and centerpiece “Black Hole Sun” stands as one of the most memorable songs (and videos) of the 1990s. Gloomy, but not hopeless and equal parts Sabbath and the Beatles, “Black Hole Sun” epitomizes the feeling of the disenchanted youth of the 1990s. “Spoonman,” the song that introduced the band to the masses is based on a street performer, who performs with spoons (and plays them on this song). “Limo Wreck” sounds a bit like “Mailman,” with its heavy plodding Sabbath riff. But the song truly shines when Cornell belts out the song’s title, for a fully satisfying climax. “The Day I Tried to Live” depicts the sadness one feels when attempts to venture out of ones shell to find happiness are not fulfilled. “Kickstand” is a very short, but sweet, ballsy rocker. “Fresh Tendrils” is an above-average, by-the-numbers rocker, but too good to be labeled “filler.” Probably the album’s bleakest, most menacing song, “4th of July” grinds and slugs along, but is captivating and thus never tedious. The album throws the listener a curve-ball with violas and cellos and World-Beat trimmings with “Half.” While the title of the closing track “Like Suicide” may lead one to believe it’s just another mid-90s clichéd “woe-is-me” song, “Like Suicide” actually offers sympathy and understanding to someone battling depression. Over seven minutes in length and slow-paced, it would be easy for this song to get tiresome, but it doesn’t.
Over 70 minutes in length, “Superunknown” is a long listen. Most albums of this length have a lot of filler, but “Superunknown” never suffers from this problem. “Superunknown” keeps the listener intrigued and interested all the way though. While many of the album’s themes are dark and depressing, this album somehow isn’t draining. Beneath the despair, there is hope.
I remember buying this album in the early summer of 1994, just as my tenure at Jr. High School ended. It was such a great time for music; Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Nirvana (Cobain had only recently died), Rage Against the Machine, Hole…it was an exciting time and years before the likes of Fred Durst, Linkin Park and Creed…
While Pearl Jam and Nirvana are given a lion’s share of the glory, Soundgarden should also be remembered as one of the best bands from the 90s. While it has been, as of this writing, almost twelve years since this album’s release (God, I’m old) it is still too early to determine Soundgarden’s legacy. Hopefully, ten years from now, kids will discover “Superunknown,” the way the kids of my generation discovered Sabbath in the 1990s.