SOUNDGARDEN — Superunknown (review)

SOUNDGARDEN — Superunknown album cover Album · 1994 · Heavy Alternative Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
The death of Chris Cornell was a tragedy for many rock fans across the globe, but in my case, it was an especially devastating blow to the gut. On the day of his passing, nostalgic images suddenly rushed back to my mind. I recalled my time as a young teen back in California playing the classic Superunknown over and over again on the car stereo. Those hazy summers were the perfect time to listen to some sentimental alternative rock records, but Superunknown was truly unlike anything I’d heard before (or since). Suddenly, the sludgy and grimy world of grunge was colorful and expansive. Aggression married grandiosity, and the moments of punk rock fury were paired with moments you swear you’d hear as a funeral dirge. Then psychedelia, stoner metal, 70s classic rock, and even some progressive rock were piled on as icing on the cake. And now with Cornell’s suicide fresh in people’s minds, the dark atmosphere and frequent mood swings that define Superunknown seem even more real and relevant than ever.

Truth be told, calling Superunknown a grunge album is a massive oversimplification. The 70-minute behemoth is packed with so many shades and flavors of rock music that it’s tough to know where to even begin analyzing it. But I can say one thing right off the bat: as great as the individual songs are, this album is best heard as the entire experience. It may be long, but trust me, it doesn’t feel that long despite how draining it is. There’s an overarching sadness to the record, but the emotional contrasts can add a layer of deception. For instance, “The Day I Tried to Live,” with its hopeful title and relatively upbeat (if a bit off-kilter) riff suggest an optimistic message, but the lyrics tell a different story altogether. Cornell’s charisma on the mic shines through, yes, but the transformation of imagery in the first verse is bizarre and even jaw-dropping. It goes from “seize the day” to “watch the rolling heads” in a matter of seconds, and yet Kim Thayil’s fantastic guitar leads continue to drive the piece along. Other songs bring on the aggression like a parade of bulls, such as the energetic punk jam “Kickstand” or the tight Drop-D riffing found in opener “Let Me Drown.”

But it’s the slower numbers that truly bring out the best in Superunknown. Whereas 90s grunge peers Alice in Chains would use doom metal to create a feeling of horror or sickness, Soundgarden brought the style to more grand and deeply profound places. “Black Hole Sun” sounds almost mystical in the way Thayil’s dreamlike guitar leads blend with the down-to-earth and even minimalist rhythm section, as if some spiritual being is being anchored and weighed down by reality. It’s wonderful that the band could maintain melodic sensibilities while at their darkest, which turned out to be one of their defining traits. The same goes for the closer “Like Suicide,” a song that’s recognizable by an unsettlingly cheery guitar melody while Cornell is singing about smashing a bird with a brick to end its suffering. The subject matter on Superunknown is portrayed and expressed with so much personality, even it reaches its darkest moments. Perhaps the most gloomy and deeply uncomfortable song on here is “4th of July,” a song that fully embraces the most grim and distraught aspects of grunge music and puts them on full display. The slow tread of the riff sounds like you’re watching a portrait slowly decay and melt with time, and the distortion is so thick that it puts many sludge metal bands to shame. Add to that a heavy Drop-C tuning on the guitars and the whole experience is a sound to behold.

The band members are simply fantastic here, no one truly being a weak link. I’ve already touched on Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil a bit, but bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron deserve their share of praise as well. These guys had so many diverse sounds and knotty time signatures to work through, and they somehow made it sound as natural as any of the other grunge bands at the time who were always playing in 4/4. For the best showing of Cameron’s talents, I highly recommend his amazing performance in the rhythmically complex “Spoonman,” in which he has an inventive drum solo alongside somebody literally tapping spoons (known as Artis the Spoonman!). “Limo Wreck” is also great, if you want to hear how creatively he works around slower tempos. For Ben Shepherd, my favorite moment would be his incredible chemistry with Chris Cornell on the main riff of “Mailman,” an octave-hopping affair with a dreary and somewhat bluesy motif. He also kicks ass on the title track and “Kickstand,” which exhibit his (and Matt Cameron’s) speed and precision more than usual. Every member brings a great level of personality and chemistry to these tunes, and Chris Cornell’s vocal performances here are among the best he’s ever recorded. Just listen to those soaring verses in the title track, as well as those beautifully subdued moments in “4th of July”! Truly a legend.

But it’s truly heartbreaking to see him gone, as well as the fact that we probably won’t get another Soundgarden record ever again. The grunge legends of the 90s seem to be slowly dying out, and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam is now officially the last of the Big 4 frontmen to still be alive and kicking (unless you count Jerry Cantrell). But much like Alice in Chains, Soundgarden were significant in the fact that they were able to be a bridge between grunge and other genres, especially metal. The band’s style wasn’t just black and white, but allowed to have breathing room and a wealth of diversity in the middle. Simply put, they were an incredible rock band with a distinct style, and Superunknown is their crowning achievement.
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