Soundgarden both redefined and transcended grunge on 1994’s Superunknown

Soundgarden both redefined and transcended grunge on 1994’s Superunknown

Welcome to the Music Roundtable, a blatant rip-off of TV Club’s TV Roundtable feature. Here, music writers and fans discuss recent reissues, hot new releases, or just records we like. This week, we’re talking about Soundgarden’s 1994 album Superunknown, which is getting a 5-disc deluxe reissue.

Jason Heller: I have expressed a few opinions about grunge, and about Soundgarden’s frontman Chris Cornell in particular, over the past couple years here at The A.V. Club. My feelings about grunge are mixed, to put it lightly, and they have been ever since I started listening to the stuff as a teenager in 1989. Soundgarden was the first so-called grunge I heard—and I say so-called, because I think Soundgarden transcends grunge as much as defines it. Cornell and crew, after all, were in on the ground floor of grunge, appearing on the 1986 compilation album Deep Six that also included fellow grunge progenitors such as the Melvins and Green River (the latter featuring members that would later form Mudhoney and Pearl Jam). The first Soundgarden record—and hence the first grunge record—I heard was the band’s second album, Louder Than Love. Released in ’89, it was given the “alternative metal” tag that was prevalent at the time. But unlike Jane’s Addiction or Voivod, two other bands I loved back then that were also being pushed into the alt-metal pigeonhole, Soundgarden didn’t seem all that alternative to me. They just seemed like a rock band. A really, really good rock band.

Grunge—and by extension the emerging alternative nation—caught up with Soundgarden in 1991, when Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten took the world by storm. Then grunge passed Soundgarden by. Cornell wasn’t humble or mumbling like Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder. For the most part he didn’t sing about his feelings, either directly or poetically. He seemed to come from the same place Robert Plant did: some snow-swept mountaintop, perhaps with a hobbit and some Pegasi lurking in the background. Soundgarden made music that felt mythic, and that flew in the face of grunge’s tattered humility. Nirvana wanted to destroy or at least ironically degrade the idea of a rock star; Soundgarden simply wanted to soar. Darkly, that is. Accordingly, Soundgarden’s 1991 album Badmotorfinger wasn’t anywhere near as popular as Nevermind or Ten. Soundgarden may have helped birth grunge, but the band was already a dinosaur compared to its slightly younger offspring.

I loved that about Soundgarden, and I still do. Cornell is the exception to so much of the revisionist hagiography that’s cropped up around grunge, a sanctification that’s due in part to the tragic deaths of Cobain and Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley. Grunge wasn’t guided by some overarching ethic or even aesthetic; it comprised everyone from dirty punks to would-be stadium rockers, from those embarrassed by fame to those who embraced it. That brings me to Soundgarden’s Superunknown, the band’s 1994 breakout album, the subject of an absurdly stuffed, five-CD, 20th-anniversary reissue this month. It seems extravagant. So is Superunknown. The album steers clear of most of the progressive-grunge angularity of Badmotorfinger; in its place is a flowing, mysterious sprawl, an ink-black river of roiling riffs and twisting melodies that borders on psychedelia. That druggy murk is best heard on the album’s biggest hit, “Black Hole Sun,” which helped turn Superunknown into Soundgarden’s most acclaimed and successful album—for which the group won two Grammys, a No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts, and the long overdue recognition of being in the same league as Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

What impresses me most is how Soundgarden found that success by doing everything wrong. In one sense, Superunknown is a counterintuitive work; in another, it’s perverse. Dense, cryptic, challenging albums like Superunknown are the types of records you’re supposed to make after you’ve already had a crowd-friendly hit under your belt. Soundgarden had no “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Alive” to help buy it some patience with the public at large. Cornell took one of his weirdest songs, “Black Hole Sun,” and made people love Soundgarden on its own unfathomable terms. Superunknown produced two other distinctive hits—the sinuous, thunderous “Spoonman” and the shimmering yet sharp “Fell On Black Days”—but the album as a whole is beautifully cohesive. It’s such a ridiculously generous album, and I don’t say that just because the original release was a formidable 15  songs long. Flagrant ambition was frowned upon during the heyday of grunge, yet here was an album that set its sights not on Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but on Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

Marah, what’s your take on the unlikely phenomenon of Superunknown? I’m curious about your perception of Soundgarden, then and now, and what you think of the scope of this insanely lavish reissue.

Marah Eakin: Well, here’s the thing about me and Soundgarden: I’ve never really liked them. I was a year or so too young to really “get” grunge, and so I never really went whole hog into Chris Cornell and company’s whole greasy aesthetic. That’s why I put myself in this Roundtable group, though. I want to get it. I want to understand Superunknown and why it’s getting this ridiculously massive reissue. (And, yes, it’s massive.)

While you could argue that the reissue is huge, because people love this record and Soundgarden was, for a time, itself rather large, to me it’s massive and lavish because—like you said, Jason—Soundgarden was a big band. Not big in the sense of money or reach, though it had both of those. Big as in every song sounded like Cornell sang it from atop a snowcapped peak. The guitars on this reissue are incredibly dense, as is most of the other instrumentation. And maybe that’s why I never got into Soundgarden.

It’s not that I don’t like prog rock or metal or ridiculous production, because Lord knows I do. Rather, I think I’ve grown to like “simpler” grunge. Grunge that’s, well, grungier. This record is dense and dirty for sure, but it’s still got that sheen of corporate production applied. I recently spent some time with a Krist Novoselic essay about the intersection of Nirvana’s politics and popular music, and it made me come away with an even greater respect for the band. They took to grunge, because they grew up liking some indie lo-fi acts. I doubt that Soundgarden did. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it makes me wary about even referring to the band as “grunge,” something that you also addressed, Jason.

What do you think, Chris?

Chris Mincher: Well, I think we’re all on the same page here: Superunknown isn’t really grunge. The label attached because of circumstance—a Sub Pop-signed band that, Jason, as you pointed out, sprung from the same Seattle-based experimental primordial soup as grunge—and was a useful marketing reference-point given the genre’s mainstream saturation by 1994, but Soundgarden was already moving onto other things by that point. While other bands were rapidly degrading the “grunge” brand by blending it with bland, inoffensive “alt-rock,” Soundgarden took an entirely different tack, assembling a heavier, thicker, slicker, trippier and distorted version of the gothic ’70s hard rock I’d been exposed to from my parents’ record collection. Though I would soon after gobble up the band’s back catalogue and explore its grunge-punk progression, at the time, Superunknown felt more like it was ushering in a new generation of metal.

I loved it for many reasons. It was, of course, loud, powerful, and aggressive (things that generally appeal to middle-school-age boys, I suspect), but more consistently melodic than the abrasive thrash stuff that had prevented me from latching onto groups such as Metallica. Superunknown’s dark atmosphere captured an eerie Twilight Zone-esque mysticism that was a welcome change-up from the screeching anger of Nirvana and Rage Against The Machine that had flowed from my stereo for the past couple of years. Superunknown was also polished and meticulous in a way that felt intentionally integrated and comprehensive—an intriguingly novel approach given the glut of raw, barely rehearsed noise-rock in my early CD collection.

For the most part, the things that most appealed to me about Superunknown are largely depleted by the heap of reissue add-ons. Surely, Cornell had to spend a lot of time blasting an aimless guitar clamor through his speakers before perfecting a killer riff, but—unlike the grunge records of the day—the pleasure of Superunknown was the finished hooks, not the free-form commotion that must be endured on the reissue’s practice tracks. The coherent spectral tone of the record is also diminished by tossed-off rehearsal takes in which, as one example, Cornell replaces the lyrics of “Fell On Black Days” with a description of a lousy date followed by profane sexual demands.

That’s not to say there aren’t also some enlightening bits here and there; stripping off the production gloss to see the record’s unprocessed innards reveals a lot about where the band was coming from. For instance, perhaps the most telling example of Led Zeppelin’s influence on the album—which really cannot be understated—isn’t in some bluesy lick, but, rather, in a 12-string acoustic folk-rock cut of “Like Suicide.” It’s also clear from “Exit Stonehenge” (the eventual B-side of the “Spoonman” single) that Soundgarden maintained at least a fleeting affection for crunchy, growling punk, and the drifting, hazy instrumental “Jerry Garcia’s Finger” is the most explicit evidence of the new psychedelic direction.

In sum, my 13-year-old self, who couldn’t put Superunknown down for the better part of 1994, has zero enthusiasm for this reissue. My 33-year-old self, whose enjoyment of music goes beyond the immediate visceral thrill of just listening to it, is interested (if only mildly so) in what the reissue has to say about the album’s background and development. But hey, some people really get a kick out of these enormous retrospectives. Todd, what camp do you fall into?

Todd VanDerWerff: I fall into the camp of people who owned Superunknown as a teenager but only ever listened to the song he’d heard on the radio: “Black Hole Sun.” (Well, I suspect this isn’t strictly accurate. When listening to the album with my wife, when “Spoonman” came on, I said, “Hey, here’s the other Soundgarden song!” only semi-facetiously.) I loved “Black Hole Sun,” but I never dared venture beyond it. At the age of 14 (when I caught up with the album as one of my first purchases from the BMG Music Club), there was something dark and sinuous about Superunknown that I didn’t quite like. I suspect the same would have been true for “Black Hole Sun” if I hadn’t first had that one sneak up on me from oblique angles on friends’ radios and at school dances. I liked rock and grunge, but I was always into songs with an epic sweep to them before the weird, hyper-personal dystopia Superunknown creates under your feet.

Listening to this as an adult, however, all I could think was that I wanted the damn thing to score a new Heavy Metal movie. You mention, Jason, that the sound seems inspired as much by Led Zeppelin as anything, but where you point to that band’s relation to Tolkien or some other epic fantasy, Superunknown put me in mind of grimy space opera—of giant, hulking spaceships crawling through far-off galaxies and plunging into unimaginable suns. There’s something almost futuristic about the sounds here, like the closing minute or so of “Fresh Tendrils” (among my favorite sections on the album), which sounds like the sort of thing rebellious robot teenagers would blast to irritate their parents. There’s a bit of a drone here, but it’s a drone that resolves into an eruption, and that’s what led me to Heavy Metal.

I can’t say that I loved Superunknown enough to listen to all five discs here, but this time around, I found the epic that I’d been looking for in the ’90s and missed, because I didn’t yet understand how to pull it apart and hear everything that went into it. I’m still not enough of a music-head to understand all of the influences and intricacies that Cornell put into the music, but I know how Superunknown makes me feel, and it’s a feeling I find easier to embrace at 33 than at 14: The world is collapsing in on itself, but we’re going to feel and sound badass on the way down.

I will spin this out to you, Jason, with another question: We’ve talked a lot about the music and the sounds on this album, but we haven’t really touched on the lyrics. Are there passages in the lyrics here that you find particularly striking or impressive?

JH: You may or may not have already known about my fanatical love of Heavy Metal, Todd, but, um, yeah, I fanatically love it. And I agree with you about the grimy, slippery futurism of Superunknown, and how it feels like an update of Heavy Metal for a decade that couldn’t have been less in tune with that film’s gonzo sensibility. (The movie’s unfortunate sequel, Heavy Metal 2000, has a soundtrack that features many Soundgarden-friendly bands, including Monster Magnet and Queens Of The Stone Age. Soundgarden would have fit perfectly on it.) Anyway, you asked about lyrics—and I will have to admit, as much as I love Cornell as a singer, a guitarist, and a craftsmen of melody, I have never liked his lyrics. When “Spoonman” came out, I thought it was great, all except for when Cornell bellows the silly word “spoonman” so ridiculously. Cornell has never been a compelling lyricist; “Black Hole Sun” manages to work, barely, by sticking to some well-worn imagery delivered with simplicity, much in the way that “Hunger Strike” by Temple Of The Dog, his side-project with members of Pearl Jam, manages to sound heartfelt in spite of the self-important posturing.

It’s worth remembering that Cornell (and the rest of Soundgarden) has always exhibited a pretty dumb sense of humor, from the absurd cover of The Ohio Players’ funk classic “Fopp” to naming a song “Full On Kevin’s Mom.” Not to mention the moments of tomfoolery that can be found on some of the bonus tracks on the Superunknown box set, as Chris has already pointed out, which is only amplified by the titles of some of those bonus tracks: “Kyle Petty, Son Of Richard,” “Bing Bing Goes To Church,” “Ruff Riff-Raff,” and so on. If there’s one thing this lavish box set might accomplish—besides making some more money for all those involved and, you know, giving us a reason to chat about it—it’s showing the inner workings of a band that seems so monolithic. If we can infer anything from these rehearsal tracks, it’s that Soundgarden had a lot of fun in the practice space, then slathered on the lion’s share of gloom during the finishing stages.

Chris, it’s interesting that you mention Metallica. You say that Soundgarden was a band that appealed to you in a way Metallica didn’t—but in many ways, I think Superunknown is Soundgarden’s Black Album. It has a similar thickness of sound, and the scope is just as self-seriously vast. (And although I don’t like The Black Album all that much, I will have to stick up for Metallica and say that the band has always been melodic, especially since the release of its second album, 1984’s Ride The Lightning. If you’d like to hear truly abrasive ’80s thrash, let’s sit down with some Sodom sometime.) And like The Black Album, Superunknown was a conscious push toward the mainstream—the big difference being, as I’ve already discussed, Soundgarden didn’t dumb down its sound in the process the way Metallica did.

I find it interesting that Superunknown doesn’t appeal to you much at all, Marah, and your reasons have given me some food for thought. You mention the group’s “greasy aesthetic” and the fact that we can safely assume Cornell and crew didn’t grow up listening to “indie lo-fi acts,” as you put it. Then again, no one who came of age in the ’80s did listen to indie lo-fi music—unless you had an uncle who was best friends with Jonathan Richman or something. Kurt Cobain may have expressed his love of The Raincoats, but when he was a kid, he rocked out to Aerosmith and Zeppelin like everyone else growing up in the ’70s, back when alternatives were few, far between, and all but hidden from view. Cobain considered that kind of chest-baring classic rock to be crass and backward, even as he expressed a lingering, ironic love of it. (Who can forget “Aero Zeppelin”?) If grunge had any kind of guiding ideal, it was that exact paradox.

So my final question to you guys is this: Considering Cornell’s propensity for baring his own chest, naming his outtakes things like “Cold Bitch,” and rekindling the rock-god stereotype that grunge ostensibly had wanted to subvert, is Soundgarden just too goddamn macho for its own good? I don’t ask this flippantly. A huge part of Cobain’s appeal was the fact that he at least tried to be conscious of issues like feminism and gender. No matter how loud and aggressive his music could get, he always seemed wary of becoming just another dick-swinging bro with a guitar. I don’t think Cornell ever had a problem with that. I’m not saying that’s a reason to dislike Soundgarden’s music, but as a devil’s advocate, I can imagine a kid in the ’90s thinking, “Wait, didn’t I just grow up bombarded with grunting, exaggeratedly masculine bands like Soundgarden? Why go back there?”

ME: Ooh, you teed me up there, Jason. Honestly, Soundgarden’s machismo is pretty much exactly the reason I’ve never fully embraced the band. It’s hard to put why exactly they turn me off—I adore Oasis so I don’t hate swaggering dicks, for crying out loud—but I do think that there is this sort of vague masculine threat implied in their music. I fully understand that this makes me sound like a hypercritical feminist looking for problems, but there’s something about the way Cornell and company aimlessly glare at humanity in their videos that has always made me feel a little wary. It’s like they just don’t care if the world burns down, like Todd referenced, and though he’s found it easier to deal with as an adult, I still find it a little off-putting.

It’s for this reason that I’ve always drawn a direct line from acts like Soundgarden to some of the more offensive cock-rock of the late ’90s. Boys I knew that grew up liking Soundgarden in middle school later liked Limp Bizkit and Korn, and we all know what happened at Woodstock ’99.

All this being said: I haven’t read Soundgarden’s biography. I don’t know Kim Thayil’s thoughts on the rights of women, or if Cornell would pull a Staind and stop his show to berate the audience for groping a teen in the audience. Convince me he would, Chris. I mean, I know you. I know that just because you liked Superunknown doesn’t mean you’re a grunting ape. Right?

CM: Sheesh, you two… it’s like you’ve never seen dingy guys in a hard-rock band that dress in black before. By the time they got around to Superunknown, at least, I don’t think Soundgarden’s bravado was particularly glaring; the shirts mostly stayed on, and 75 percent of the group kept its hair above the shoulder. I think a problem here is the near-impossible feat of (for all of the historical reasons mentioned above) avoiding comparisons with grunge contemporaries. When measured against the insecurity-ridden and angst-obsessed notables in that world, sure, Cornell and company might look a little macho. (Then again, which reasonably confident rock dudes wouldn’t?) However, compared to a lot of other popular bands at the time—in particular, funk-metal acts such as Red Hot Chili Peppers or 311, or even ska-punk groups such as Sublime—Soundgarden circa 1994 was relatively tame on the masculinity front.

Jason raised a good point that nonetheless seems overlooked here: Soundgarden had a sense of humor. When the band got big and brawny in aesthetic as well as sound, the guys were fully cognizant of the subtle caricature they were pulling off. Yes, Soundgarden has a cut called “Cold Bitch,” but, for me, the intent behind that and other similar tracks (including the misogynistic gag lyrics on the reissue version of “Fell On Black Days” I referenced above) is informed by earlier songs such as “Big Dumb Sex,” a total send-up of narcissistic ’80s glam-metal testosterone-worship. If Soundgarden occasionally played the part, it was ridicule, not reverence.

That pension for satire also manifested itself in the ominous futurism of Superunknown you’ve all discussed above. Todd and Marah, I know you aren’t fans of the album’s undercurrent of apocalyptic ambivalence (perhaps you might be more into the cautionary overtones of Radiohead’s The Bends, which came a year after Superunknown and shared a lot of its cryptic imagery), but I think it’s mostly driven by cynicism and dark comedy—consider, for example, the video to “Black Hole Sun,” with its drolly surreal, Terry Gilliam-esque depictions of the vapidity of society.

So, no, I really don’t think Superunknown qualifies as another iteration of brash, arrogant cock-rock, nor do I think it’s even partially responsible for the glut of obnoxious nu-metal garbage that followed it. (If we’re assigning blame for that post-grunge fiasco, my hunch is that some combination of ’90s rap-rock and industrial hardcore is the true culprit.) That’s not to say Soundgarden didn’t have a few unfortunate followers—I’m sure folks like Creed mistakenly thought they were carrying the torch—but, just by opening the door for metal in the burgeoning alt-rock scene, I don’t think the band can be held accountable for every clown that walked through.

Am I the only one here who found Soundgarden’s innovation self-aware? Todd?

TV: I think it’s the self-awareness that keeps this from being an album I don’t like. At all times, there’s just the slightest of a wink or nudge to let us know that what we’re listening to is just a little disconnected from complete and total sincerity, and that saves it for me. It’s interesting to me, Chris, that you compare Soundgarden’s ultra-masculinity to three other bands I’ve never liked very much. (I feel like a bad Californian every time I admit to utter indifference for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but there it is. And the less we say about Sublime or particularly 311, the better.) And it’s even more interesting that you then bring up The Bends, which is one of my favorite albums of all time and one that I listened to immediately after finishing Superunknown for this roundtable. See, I really do have trouble connecting with hyper-masculine art. I can do it if it’s really, really well done—The Shield is one of my favorite TV shows ever made, for instance—but I often find over-the-top machismo distancing and hard to relate to, and that was especially true when I was a wussy little teenager. And so much hard rock and heavy metal comes from that place that the list of stuff I listen to in both genres has always been very limited. Put another way: Nirvana’s always been one of my favorites, because deep down, I think Kurt Cobain felt the same ambivalence about the trappings of masculinity that I do. But I can’t quite connect with Pearl Jam, because the music there, for all its nods toward sensitivity and empathy and what not, is much more self-consciously macho.

That’s true of Superunknown, too, but it’s here where I think Cornell’s lyrics are worth praising. The ridiculousness you point out, Jason, seems more to me like a slight but conscious distancing from the stereotype of what this kind of music is “supposed” to sound like (which, as Chris mentions, is pretty much just Creed), and the psychedelic elements around the music’s edges achieve the same effect. Not to bring everything back to the version of myself who could only appreciate “Black Hole Sun,” but it was the band’s biggest hit, and if you look at the words to it, it seems easy to me to see why. They convey a particular feeling and resonance, but they’re also basically nonsense poetry, words chosen to express the loneliness of young man pain and angst but never so on the nose as to be completely graspable. Superunknown, like its most famous song, is terrific at creating an emotion, but always slipping away from you before you can completely make sense of it. The black hole sun is supposed to take away your pain, but it’s also a complete contradiction, something that shouldn’t be able to exist (at least as I understand astrophysics). In that dynamic lies much of Superunknown and Soundgarden’s power. 

Filed Under: Music, Soundgarden

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