Tuesday, September 4, 2007

[077] Superunknown

Albums: Superunknown
Artist: Soundgarden
Release Date: March 1994
Label: A&M
Producers: Michael Beinhorn & Soundgarden

"With an ounce of pain, I wield a ton of rage"
- from "Like Suicide"

Raz's Top 100 list - always problems! Soundgarden produced a massive problem that I didn't foresee. There are plenty of albums on this list that are commercially obscure, but can be found all over YouTube because those artists' fans are also internet nerds, geeks, & hipsters. But what about a huge band that no one really talks about anymore? Soundgarden's fifth album, 1994's monster hit Superunknown, debuted at number one on Billboard, and had six charting singles. And yet finding any quality videos online from the album that can be embedded is pretty much impossible. I can find more live videos of Daughtry covering "Fell on Black Days" than I can of Soundgarden themselves. What the fuck happened??

When this album was released, a month before Kurt Cobain's suicide, it spread like wildfire throughout my high school. It was a phenomenon. I remember this kid Kenny got it the day it came out, on his lunch break, and brought it to art class. "Spoonman" was cool, but weird, and we needed to know there was something more here that sounded like the Soundgarden we expected. We passed it around on his discman and lost ourselves. It was so heavy, but in wholly new ways that we didn't even notice. But really, it was just rock music. Then Kurt died, and it became something very different. Chris Cornell didn't really intend for these songs to work that way; they were more for working out his own demons, but they were now going to be the black depression soundtrack of everyone's summer. It wasn't for me though. At the time, I honestly wasn't into Nirvana, so I just rocked out to Soundgarden like I rocked out to Pearl Jam or Led Zeppelin. This album was my graduation, my last summer with friends, my freshman semester. It was blasting out of my friend Chris's car, me sitting shotgun while Ross hung out the back window yelling the lyrics of "Black Hole Sun" at pedestrians. It was mellowing out alone to "The Day I Tried To Live" in the D building 2nd floor lounge at college. Superunknown was lodged in my cassette walkman for months. Even in 1996, at Lollapalooza, it was "My Wave" and my first mosh pit. This album and I, we have a lot of history. But, again, it was just rock music. Now that I'm older, and I revisit it, it sounds very different, much deeper. Its troubles sound even more special.

Soundgarden liked to fight the critic's assertion that they were an obvious child of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. They tried to circumvent all that talk by injecting this album with some out-there stuff, like the punk blast of "Kickstand", or bassist Ben Shepherd's eastern-tinged drone pieces, the soaring "Head Down" and the impish "Half" (which are descendants of Zeppelin's "Friends" anyway). The big hits were odd too - the Magical Mystery Tour wannabe "Black Hole Sun" switched it up, dazzling with multiple Cornells swirling around you, while "Spoonman" is one of the only hit singles in 7/4 time (Pink Floyd's "Money" would be the only other one I know of). But if there's one thing that's clear to me after all these years, it's that this album sounds like the band's version of the blues. The difference comes when you realize that while Zeppelin & Sabbath took from the original sources, Soundgarden did not; it's very much the blues without the blues. The lyrics are somewhat in place, but the music is not. It's not warm or soft. It's cold and dark and hard and very jagged in places. Guitarist Kim Thayil wrings all the soul out of his playing, instead crafting multi-faceted riffage with his drop D tuning, and ripping solos that are closer to Bad Brains' Dr. Know than Jimmy Page. The churning "Let Me Drown" sounds more like Helmet and Chavez than the Seattle bands, and when Cornell moans "I'm going home for the last time", he might as well be singing he's trying to flag a ride to the crossroads. That's the number one key thing on this album - Cornell is actually singing, as opposed to trying to scream like a banshee the whole time. Don't get me wrong, he's still screaming in places, but "Fell on Black Days" is the furthest thing from "Jesus Christ Pose". In retrospect, "Black Days" is a blues song to the fucking core, and it's definitely more timeless than any other song the band ever recorded.

It feeds right into the brilliant "Mailman", which along with "Limo Wreck" and "4th Of July", reveals the vast divide between Soundgarden and the infinite sludge of their countless imitators. It was Soundgarden's ability to weave melody into the metal that made them special. On "Mailman", he hides behind Thayil's monolith riffs and Matt Cameron's crushing beat and ghostly mellotron, leaving his vocals at a remarkable simmer for almost the entire song to emphasize the "...riding you all the way". On the otherside, his voice isn't even on Earth during the chorus of "Limo Wreck", but he's never really histrionic like Robert Plant was. "4th Of July", which at first seems like the heaviest song on the album, turns out to be one of the band's most restrained, best songs of their entire career. It's so slow, you almost miss the fact that it's kind of funky, not to mention that it houses what are maybe Cornell's best lyrics. I bet he wishes he wrote words this good in Audioslave. It makes me wonder why Audioslave got kids today to go back and discover Rage Against The Machine but not Soundgarden; is it that the likes of Daughtry, Nickelback and Trapt are still picking their carcass clean all these years later, and people are just tired of the sound? And ya know, that's where the story ends sadly, because Chris Cornell's now resumed his solo career that will surely be forever forgettable, and new generations will forever overlook the best album by one of the best hard rock bands of all time.

01. "Let Me Drown"
02. "My Wave"
03. "Fell On Black Days"
04. "Mailman"
05. "Superunknown"
06. "Head Down"
07. "Black Hole Sun"
08. "Spoonman"
09. "Limo Wreck"
10. "The Day I Tried To Live"
11. "Kickstand"
12. "Fresh Tendrils"
13. "4th Of July"
14. "Half"
15. "Like Suicide"

I would just like to note that these videos are all below the standards I have been keeping for the list entries. YouTube just doesn't have any good Soundgarden to offer; it's a shame. The only other place I could find to direct you to is Yahoo; they have a few.

"Black Hole Sun" [video]

- BONUS: "Fell On Black Days" [audio]
- BONUS: "My Wave" [video]
- BONUS: "The Day I Tried To Live" [video]
- BONUS: "Kickstand" [live video]
- BONUS: "Like Suicide" [live]

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