25 years ago, Soundgarden released an album many consider to be the peak of their career, and arguably their best album. At the height of the 90’s grunge movement, bands like Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and many more were dominating the public sonic landscape with what many perceived as a more stripped back approach to rock music in opposition to the fretboard Olympic haven and excess of the 80’s shred guitar era, as well as many of the Glam Metal bands of the day. Today, I’m going to discuss the fairly controversial idea that what bands like Soundgarden lacked in terms of technical ability on the surface perhaps, they drew strength from better songwriting and production layering that caused for the listener to truly have a clear look inside the mind of perhaps a fairly troubled individual.
One thing that I can definitely say is that from a production standpoint, Superunknown (1994) is pretty incredible. All the sounds are organic, recorded with real instruments, and perfectly placed and crafted with an intended purpose. There’s also this element of looseness and “anything goes” sort of attitude about the record that I find incredibly charming. While earlier records had a lot more of streamlined approach, Superunknown shows Soundgarden experimenting with their sound and incorporating new elements to expand the sonic landscape of what they could do. It’s really easy to see how much of an influence Soundgarden had on alternative rock bands when listening to this album because I hear so many things bands that followed suit have replicated time and time again. This is one of those records where I share a similar sentiment with albums like Highway To Hell by AC/DC for example, where there’s just this certain thing about it that really puts it in a league of its own. It’s something that the band hadn’t achieved up until that point and never quite could replicate afterward. It’s one of those albums where I can throw it on, and it simply demands a listen from start to finish, and very few albums do that for me.
Songs like “Let Me Drown,” “Spoonman,” and “Kickstand” all sport a familiar Soundgarden sound that fans heard on previous albums, but the rest of the album is really a hodgepodge of all kinds of different elements that weren’t previously tapped into by the band. Songs like “Black Hole Sun,” “Fell On Black Days,” and “The Day I Tried To Live” delve into personal topics about the effects that depression can have, and carry a dark atmosphere that simply can’t be conveyed any better.
On the other hand, the album features songs like “Mailman,” “Limo Wreck,” and especially “4th of July” that almost find themselves in doom metal or stoner rock territory. It makes sense in a way because not only was grunge making it huge at this point, doom metal and stoner rock were starting to peak in the early ’90s and continue to reign far and wide to this day for a lot of underground rock and metal fans. As a musician and music fan living in the city of Indianapolis, I can definitely say our local crop of bands is keeping that particular genre very much alive and well. I could honestly see any bands in the genre covering these songs and really doing them comparable justice. Though I can’t help but feel that since it was Soundgarden that recorded these songs originally, they have a tonality and uniqueness that wouldn’t easily be replicated, or even topped for that matter.
I could sit here and talk about this album for much longer than I would be allowed to on an anniversary article, but anyone who considers themselves a casual Soundgarden fan, or really just a rock and metal fan in general, should really take time and dive into this album. Sure we’ve heard “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman” on the radio a bazillion times, and while those songs are still great, the album as a whole is a real gem and deserves a listen from start to finish, because even 25 years later it’s an album I consider a true work of art. It certainly makes me appreciate the fact that I was able to see Soundgarden perform literally within days of Chris’s passing and witness the genius behind Soundgarden’s sound in person. Mr. Cornell is dearly missed and will be for many years to come.