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Soundgarden’s Superunknown Remains a Raging Staple of Its Times

Two colleagues revisit the vitality, anger, and darkness of Soundgarden's finest album

Soundgarden
Soundgarden, photo courtesy of band
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    Editor’s Note: As Soundgarden got ready to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Superunknown back in 2014, our own Matt Melis and Henry Hauser discussed the album’s place in both the band’s history and the legacy of the grunge movement. As Superunknown continues to turn new listeners on to the music of the late, great Chris Cornell and his most famous band, we revisit this back-and-forth discussion, which was originally published on March 8th, 2014.

    Matt Melis (MM): So, how did Soundgarden come into the picture for you?

    Henry Hauser (HH): I was eight when Superunknown hit shelves back in ’94, so most of my experience with the album came in the years following its release. Whenever I heard “Black Hole Sun” or “Spoonman” come on the radio, I’d think of flannel-clad high school kids smoking cigarettes, greasy hair, and DARE ads. And now, listening to these songs 20 years later, those same images are right back in my mind. There’s something to be said for that: it’s an album inextricably linked to its time.

    MM: There was a two- or three-year period in high school where grunge was all my friends listened to, and there was an ongoing debate over who the best grunge band was: Nirvana or Pearl Jam. Those were the two camps. And I was the guy who always tried to introduce bands like Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden into that argument. And the response was tantamount to “Go sit quietly at the kiddie table while the adults hash this out.” The irony, of course, was that Cobain was already dead, Alice was on indefinite hiatus, Soundgarden may have already parted ways, and Pearl Jam wouldn’t tour anywhere near our zip code. So, it was a raging conflict over an essentially dead genre. But I remember advocating for Soundgarden back then.

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    HH: Musically, I’m still struck by the ferocious vocals of Chris Cornell and drummer Matt Cameron’s bold, hasty time signature shifts.

    MM: Absolutely. Chris Cornell was the best rock singer of my generation. His voice ranged from a jagged, rusty hypodermic to a melodic croon to a banshee wail—maybe all within the same song. And Matt Cameron was the first drummer who made me just focus on drum parts. His drumming was tribal, sometimes at odds with Cornell’s vocals and sometimes almost harmonizing with them.

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    HH:  Before really digging into the nuts and bolts of the album, let’s have a look at some facts and figures. Superunknown was Soundgarden’s fourth LP, so they’d already built up a strong fan base and plenty of goodwill. The album debuted at No. 1, moved 300,000 copies its first week alone, and yielded Grammys for Best Hard Rock Performance and Best Metal Performance.

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    The two Grammys in two different genres are significant because Superunknown isn’t a proper grunge album. It’s among the least grunge-y of the grunge and on the softer side of hard rock. It’s a crossover offering, and I think that helps explain its widespread popularity.

    MM: I don’t think I really appreciated the breadth of the album until later on. It’s this mysteriously cohesive mix of metal, pop, psychedelia, and Eastern sounds. At the time, even hearing something like “Spoonman” on the radio … it sounded like nothing else out there: tribal, that percussion breakdown, the spoon performance, and the almost robotic call-and-response vocals.

    HH: “Spoonman” is a very unique track. On the surface, it sounds like this silly, trivial tune. But they’ve actually got street performer Artis the Spoonman playing on the bridge, plus Matt Cameron banging on pots and pans while shifting between 7/4 and 4/4 timing. It’s not an easy thing to do, and he does it seamlessly.

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    MM: You’ve mentioned the famous odd time signatures a couple of times. I’m a complete layman when it comes to beats and technical aspects, but there was always something perceptible—in something like “My Wave” or “Fell on Black Days”—that struck me as being different from what you’d normally hear in a song.

    HH: A lot of the singles have unusual time signatures, which is counterintuitive. You’d think the singles would be the most straightforward, the most accessible. “Black Hole Sun” does have a 4/4 part, but it also goes 9/8. To stay in synch the whole length of that song takes talent, skill, and tons of practice.

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    MM: Before our convo began, you brought up the tone and subject matter of this record.

    HH: There’s a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, and a keen sense of social decay.

    MM: Just a little bit (laughs).

    HH: Fortunately for us, Chris Cornell provides plenty of background on his songs. He says that leadoff track “Let Me Drown” is about wanting to crawl back into the womb and die. He’s so overwhelmed by the pointlessness of life that he’d like to avoid the whole experience altogether. The grating and menacing “Mailman” is about, well, going postal. When Cornell sings, “My place was beneath you/ But now I’m above,” it’s terrifying. His frustration with occupational hierarchy is driving him to the verge of homicide. Scary stuff.

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    MM: It’s bleak as fuck, and I didn’t pick up on that when I was younger. Take, for example, Alice in Chains’ Dirt. That album’s ostensibly about battling addiction and demons. You can’t miss it. Here, it’s almost like, “What the hell happened to Chris Cornell” to make him write songs like these? It’s so full of despair, alienation, and suspicion of everyone in the outside world (maybe that’s where you get “Blow Up the Outside World” off Down on the Upside). It’s like Holden Caulfield dropped out and joined a band. But I don’t remember considering Superunknown to be this incredibly dark album growing up.

    HH: I think you’re right. It’s difficult to tell how weirdly depressive this album is. Part of the reason is that the music has so much life and energy. There’s a whole lot of dissonance between the music and Cornell’s lyrics. Grunge’s answer to “Born in the U.S.A.” Plus, there are glimmers of hope. “The Day I Tried to Live”, according to Cornell, is his attempt to “[open] up to experience everything that’s going on around me.”

    MM: But what happens when he tries to open himself up? It’s a very short-lived experiment.

    HH: He gets burned, big time.

    MM: You’re right, though. The musicianship, uniqueness, and energy here belie the fact that this is really dark stuff. I remember reading that “Like Suicide” came about from Cornell killing an injured bird to put it out of its misery.

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    HH: The inspiration for “Like Suicide” is really powerful. A bird flew towards Cornell’s window, smashed through the glass, and lay twitching in agony, ready to die. When a bird flies into reflective glass, it’s actually trying to reach out for some commonality. The bird sees what it believes to be one of its own species, so it flies toward that image. But it’s a mirage, a deadly illusion. Despite this downer subject matter, when the chorus comes around, you still want to crank up the volume, jump on the table, and start pounding your chest like Tarzan. It’s all at once infectious, empowering, and savage.

    MM: What’s your favorite cut off the record?

    HH: That would be “Head Down”. The track kicks off with Cornell’s soft whisper lulling us into a numb calm. Complex time signature shifts come into play once again, really showcasing Cameron’s impeccable timing. The drummer takes a 20-second victory lap as the track fades, almost like a curtain call after a Herculean effort. Fully deserved.

    Is there a track you would drop?

    MM: It’s bordering on sacrilege, but I never understood the hysteria over “Black Hole Sun”, even though that song blew Soundgarden up. And do you remember the video? Christ, that gave me nightmares. All those Enzyte commercial smiles and morphing, impish faces. But it plays so long and always struck me as a bizarre take on an old-timey song like “You Are My Sunshine”. It’s the only track I routinely skip over. I’m guessing you and the 19 million YouTubers who’ve watched it don’t agree.

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    HH: I agree in part and dissent in part. I find the melodic guitar and cold, distant harmonies to be really compelling. But for all this catchy, cosmic, psychedelic pop, it’s a self-obsessed song and goes on for way too long. Plus, it’s been playing in select coffee shops for two decades straight. Tons of overplayed songs become parodies of themselves; it’s unavoidable.

    MM: Or become part of Weird Al polka medleys.

    So, Soundgarden announced that they’ll be playing Superunknown in its entirety next week down in Austin as part of the iTunes Festival. Is this something to get excited about attending or streaming?

    HH: I think Superunknown deserves the spotlight, but I hope this doesn’t mean they’re going to exclude material from the first three albums. That would be unfortunate.

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    MM: Would you want a second set that delved into the rest of their discography?

    HH: Yeah, I’d be hoping for a second set. And I’d also advise them to shuffle up the order.

    MM: Abandon the original sequence?

    HH: I would. I think it works well in an album context, but a lot of the most visceral cuts are towards the front of the LP. In terms of playing a live set, if they stick to the original order they’re going to get through all the singles relatively early. That doesn’t make for a grand climax, which is what they ought to be going for.

    What do you think?

    MM: It’s like a movie you love. You know every scene, beat, and twist, and there’s an emotional and psychological payoff when you can anticipate what’s coming and it still delivers when it arrives. So, I do think there’s something to seeing the journey through from opener to closer, never being surprised but also never being bored by knowing what’s coming. So, the original sequence would be my preference.

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    But I missed them at Lollapalooza a few years back—like Matt Damon, I had to see about a girl—and have yet to catch them live, so I’m not picky. But you could do a lot worse for a set list. It draws you in quickly. There are built-in hits and cool downs, deep cuts, mini surges (“Kickstand”), and oddball moments (Ben Sheppard singing on “Half”).

    Also coming down the pipe, in June, is the five-disc deluxe reissue.

    HH: It’s for the hardcore fans, and for them I think this could be a meaningful release. On the other hand, artists have been speaking out against their own reissues, which is concerning. Oasis says that no one should buy the 20-year Definitely Maybe reissue. Full disclosure, I still might. In a lot of ways, these reissues are just some company putting a sticker on a classic album and creating an event out of a time stamp.

    soungarden reissue1 Soundgardens Superunknown Remains a Raging Staple of Its Times

    MM: As a rule, I’ve always avoided reissues. However, looking at this product, it’s impressive. The packaging and art are beautiful, and the five-disc set intrigues me. I don’t know enough about Soundgarden to know if the holy grail of B-sides is on there, but they have the discs broken down into demos, rehearsals, and, obviously, the final cuts. Maybe seeing that metamorphosis would be interesting, especially if those songs underwent significant or bizarre changes between demo and album.

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    HH: I think a reissue like this provides a good opportunity to talk about the legacy of grunge.

    MM: Sure. The reissues can put a band, genre, or era back into the spotlight for a moment.

    HH: You don’t really see that many grunge bands, per se, on the scene anymore. But I think the message of grunge is still very much heard. And in the last several years there’s been a renaissance of garage rock and lo-fi groups. Both genres owe something to grunge.

    MM: While you don’t see music labeled “grunge” much anymore, you do have three of the big four—Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam—out there headlining festivals, touring, and making records again. So, in a way, grunge is very much alive, or it’s experiencing a second life.

    I listen back to so many of those grunge albums I loved as a kid with ennui and indifference now. But there are a few choice records that still have a lot of life breathing through them, and I count Superunknown among that group.

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    HH: Twenty years later, I think the first two-thirds of Superunknown still has a pulse, right up to “The Day I Tried to Live”.  The last five songs are artifacts. They channel the time period, but don’t stand the test of time.

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