Hailed usually as the band’s magnum opus (this, or their 1991 album Badmotorfinger), Superunknown is indeed a great album. In my opinion not quite their best, but it nevertheless remains a classic rock album of the last twenty years, with a number of widely-recognised songs and riffs.
Presumably semi-famous for the fact that it received five stars out of five in British mainstream music magazine ‘Q’ (back when albums hardly ever received such a rating therein, and was therefore seen as a major surprise. Also before the rating was bestowed onto such diabolical pieces of tat as Oasis’ Be Here Now and Fat of the Land, by the Prodigy), the album was indeed lauded by most, if not all, rock circles. Noted rock journalist Nick Terry once wrote that this was one of their ‘bombastic and shit’ albums, but such a point was lacking in anything to back it up.
Ostensibly one of the pivotal albums of the Grunge generation, it is very arguable as to whether it even qualifies as a Grunge album. Granted, Soundgarden (along with the likes of Melvins and Green River) represent the most famous of the original Grunge bands, exemplified by their presence on the famous Deep Six compilation of the mid-nineteen-eighties. They were also the first of the bands in the scene to make it big and sign to a major (A&M).
However, times change, and the Soundgarden of a decade later is a different beast indeed. Classic Rock in the greatest sense (they were often given the moniker ‘the Led Zeppelin of the nineties’), they had transcended the trappings of the scene, and had become a varied, dynamic band of great imagination. The trend (as it was by that stage) was also becoming dry anyway, and scene icon Kurt Cobain was about a month away from ending it in the most tragic of ways.
As the band was no doubt aware of the stagnation of the trend, they delivered an album that was – and is – an epic journey through different strains of rock, which was polished enough to sound really good, with excellent vocals and musicianship, but not so much that it sounded clinical or over-processed.
Opener ‘Let Me Drown’ sets out their stall as well as can be imagined. Not a note is wasted as they kick off with a killer and catchy riff. The lyrics are enigmatic enough to play Rorschach, while also being cool enough to sing along with. The chorus is soaring and aggressive – if Led Zep it be, it has been bolstered by gym time. Even transient elements of the song (such as the ‘Yeeeah!’ uttered in the midst of the chorus) are spot-on.
One thing Cornell has had an innate knack for, even as late as his Audioslave days – is that ability to draw the listener into his vocal in a visceral way. He usually achieves this by changing key. He blasts out a higher key in such a way that he pulls the listener through the ceiling with him – not just in terms of notes, but in feeling and energy. ‘So heal my wound without a trace… AND SEAL MY TOMB WITHOUT MY FACE!’ from the opener is a fine example of this.
The dynamic swings on this album are another attribute justifying its mantle of ‘classic’. Next song ‘My Wave’ maintains the hard-rocking aesthetic, with the bass-y, catchy riffing remaining, but accompanied by a far poppier overall feel. The snarling testosterone is largely replaced by a layered pop melody, which is augmented by higher guitar melodies and more prominent basslines.
Neither of these can prepare the listener for the sheer melancholy of ‘Fell on Black Days’. Riding a riff which repeats its way into your very psyche, the lyrics tenderly describe a feeling of, not so much self loathing per se, as utter disappointment at the narrator’s life. All he has sought to achieve has not only failed to come to fruition, but the opposite has been the case. There is such resigned quietness to the vocal in the verse that the listener truly believes such lines as:
Whomsoever I’ve cured, I’ve sickened now,
And whomsoever I’ve cradled, I’ve put you down.
I’m a searchlight soul they say, but I can’t see it in the night,
I’m only faking when I get it right.
This brand of melancholy is revisited twice later in the album by ‘The Day I Tried to Live’ and ‘Like Suicide’, which are not as exquisite, but are still excellent songs in their own right.
The former song continues what is something of a recurring theme on the album – that of failure. In this song, an otherwise jaunty melody is belied by the fact that Cornell ‘woke the same as any other day’, but ‘should have stayed in bed’. That ability to being the listener with him is very effective in the last time he sings about how he ‘wallowed in the blood and mud with all the other pigs, and I knew that I was a liar’.
Not all is musically perfect here, though. The primary matter for criticism of this album would be, as with its follow-up (Down on the Upside, 1996), the sheer size of it. The general quality of song is of such a high standard that the amount of content is welcome, but the quality of the piece as an album suffers somewhat.
While mid-album, mid-paced, songs such as ‘Head Down’ and the title track are very good, they do result in the album dragging a tad – especially sandwiched betwixt the stunning opening salvo and the singles that follow. Similarly, some songs like the neither here nor there ‘Half’ sound like they’d be more comfortable as a b-side.
The aforementioned singles would be the famous ‘Black Hole Sun’, and the closest to Sabbath tribute, ‘Spoonman’, with its excellent, hammering, riff. ‘Black Hole Sun’ is the hook-filled pop song of the album, with accompanying iconic video, and is a very effective centrepiece which signals quite how much they had grown in their first decade.
The songs get very interesting near the end of the album. ‘Limo Wreck’ is a dark, detached piece, very exacting in its guitar melody and cold in execution. The opening riff is all moody suggestion and harmonics that rise, as if to escape the claustrophobia of the song. The song lurches down its track, guitars scrape and grind, as Cornell threatens that ‘I’m the wreck of you / I’m the death of you all’.
‘Kickstand’ offers short, punky, relief, as it motors on of its own volition, but it leads the listener into the mire that is ‘4th of July’. Apparently inspired by witnessing the fireworks while tripping on LSD, this is the closest the band comes to revisiting their Grunge roots. The riff is slow, sludgy and menacing, the vocals resigned and sober. The imagery is spectacular, as it describes the ultimate in anti-celebration:
And I heard it in the wind,
And I saw it in the sky.
And I thought it was the end,
And I thought it was the 4th of July.
Cornell sings about how ‘the fire is spreading’, as ‘Jesus tries to crack a smile beneath another shovel-load’. This psychedelic imagery of fear and apocalypse works really well over the sociopathic backing, and culminates in the order to ‘Light a Roman candle / And hold it in your hand’, as Cornell is ‘in the fall-out’.
‘Like Suicide’, as its title implies, is more elegiac in nature. Slowly unfolding and developing over its seven minutes, it concerns what one might conclude is lost love. ‘She lived like a murder / But she died / Just like suicide’, he sings, as he makes the musical journey from sombre examination to utterly emotive howls of anguish. It’s a fitting and effective album closer.
This is an undoubtedly great album. As stated, the prime flaw is the bands desire to be as all encompassing as possible, which does hurt the flow of the album. One or two songs don’t need to be there, but as a whole, this is an album hard to argue with. It goes without saying that this is a necessity for any fan of modern rock, and a strong candidate for best album of 1994.