Ironically enough, this is the album I turn to when everything sounds stale. An alternative rock (using this as a blanket term) record that went to number 1 on the Billboard album chart, catapulted a band into stardom, created one of the biggest radio hits of the ’90’s and boasted four other successful singles. An album that on paper should not be anything incredibly special somehow found its way into my heart and stands as one of the most creative and ridiculously unpredictable albums ever recorded. Soundgarden’s Superunknown isn’t just a fantastic record; it’s a landmark, the album by which all other modern rock albums should be judged, and should serve as a manual on how to keep your listener interested. The band always have a new trick up their sleeve, not letting the album drag for a second of its monolithic running time. This is simply because not a second is wasted. Because of how big of a record Superunknown was, its unorthodox nature comes as a shock, and makes the album a more worthwhile experience. Soundgarden was one of the few (well-known) bands during this time period that was truly adventurous, a band willing to write songs about street performers or have a bass solo take up half of a song. The album’s true charm lies in its pacing, and this record is certainly well-paced. For an album that lasts seventy-three minutes, every note has to be meticulously planned out so that the length is justifiable. Soundgarden passes this test with flying colors. Each track is exactly the correct length, and an incredible amount of density and ebb and flow is found throughout this absolute monster of a record.
Each member of the band is in top form on Superunknown. Superunknown is a guitar-driven record, so it should come as no surprise that Kim Thayil is in his prime here. Some of his best work is found within the confines of this twisted hour, primarily on the more metal-oriented track. His chameleon-esque time shifts and unusual tunings only further single him out as a truly innovative guitarist. Just take a gander at “Limo Wreck” which opens up with one of the absolute beefiest riffs I’ve ever heard, or perhaps the omnipresent “Black Hole Sun” in which Thayil feeds his guitar through a Leslie speaker and gallons of distortion to produce a trippy and ripe tone. However, no discussion about Kim Thayil is complete without at least one reference to “4th Of July” the absolute densest and heaviest Soundgarden track ever. Opening with an enraged, lazy thunder of a riff, the track only builds as it courses through its five-minute running time. The song peaks with Kim’s solo, a minimalistic motif full of emotion and darkness. It fits the song’s visual themes (drugs, nuclear holocaust) perfectly and personally makes me feel as if I’m being lifted into space and then thrown down with brute force. Bassist Ben Shepherd also turns in a grade-A performance, as this was before he decided to bogart the songwriting process and break up the band for thirteen years. Shepherd penned what are easily the oddest tracks on the record. “Head Down” is a percussion-driven, surreal rabbit hole of a track elevated to a state of psychedelia by Chris Cornell’s repetitive, droning falsetto and lyrics. The song closes with a drum battle between Shepherd and actual drummer Matt Cameron that sounds strangely musical, especially when Shepherd plays a bass lick or two over it. His other contribution is the often-maligned “Half”, a song I think gets too much shit around these parts, or anywhere really. The lyrics are nonsensical and the music is inscrutable, but the whole album is like this in some way. The track closes with a forty-five second bass solo that defines beauty. Thayil’s soaring feedback accentuates the bass melody and gives this song some replay value that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
However, the two members that really define this record are Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron. In his better days, Cornell was untouchable in terms of lyricism and vocal ability. Never before have I heard a voice like his, and anyone trying to replicate it would simply sound ridiculous. Chris’s vocals truly speak to my heart, although sometimes I can’t tell why. His rambling on “Head Down” is just as captivating as his haunting soliloquy on “Like Suicide”, because his voice carries that much weight. The lyrics on this album are nothing short of brilliance. Opening with the rather cryptic command to “stretch the bones over my skin”, Superunknown has only introduced you to the twisted character and unpredictability that Cornell has lent it with his words. “Mailman” is a triumph lyrically, a damning condemnation of isolation and loneliness. The character seems to have given up all hope, and the way Cornell slowly rises into a falsetto at the end of every phrase is enough to send shivers up the spine of any dedicated music fan. Once he hits the chorus, the repeated belting of “I know I’m headed for the bottom” hits the listener in the gut like a wrecking ball demolishing an office building. The way his vocals slowly grow more intense over the song’s runtime, only to explode with fifteen seconds left before the conclusion, is a fantastic exercise in tension and release and something often overlooked by many. Other Cornell highlights include the aforementioned “4th of July” with Cornell’s most vivid lyrics and a double-tracked performance of his lower and higher registers, “The Day I Tried To Live”, a track almost as disturbing as “4th of July” with Cornell wailing throughout the song’s famous chorus, and “Fresh Tendrils” a song showing off Cornell’s flexibility as a vocalist.
Matt Cameron’s performance is jaw-dropping. He is the glue of Soundgarden, keeping the band in check and making their insane musical ideas sound extremely natural. His rapid fills on “Let Me Drown” are just the first sign of how good this man’s performance is. Cameron plays around with time signatures to no end, shifting meters numerous times throughout songs. “The Day I Tried To Live” or the mind-numbing technicality of “She Likes Surprises” show how steady Cameron is, making any beat sound just right and never exercising the boundaries of the song to the point where he overplays. His drums are tuned to perfection, the toms sounding hollow and bleak, perfect for this album’s empty atmosphere and themes. Cameron’s snare is noticeably heavier-sounding than on Badmotorfinger, proved by the hard-hitting rock beats of “4th of July” or the punk frenzy of “Kickstand”. He is also very rigid about tempo, never letting the band get out of place. This is what makes the faster (“Spoonman”, “My Wave”, “Let Me Drown”) and slower tracks (“Mailman”, “Limo Wreck”, “4th Of July”, “Like Suicide”) so much more effective. Superunknown also includes Matt’s only drum solo with Soundgarden on “Spoonman”, which fits exceedingly well into the song’s otherwise straightforward structure and provides a much needed variation from a song that could have eventually grown bland.
More than anything, Superunknown is a musical journey, an opus or odyssey of sorts. Each song contains its own special characteristics that separate it from the rest, which is what makes this the best grunge album ever. “Let Me Drown” is aggressive and punchy. “Mailman” and “Like Suicide” possess an undeniable and palpable feeling of loss and longing, so much that the listener may actually empathize with the characters. “Fresh Tendrils” and “Black Hole Sun” are the album’s psychedelic gems, lyrically obscure (“Give me little bits of more than I can take”, “Call my name through the cream and I’ll hear you scream again”) and instrumentally light and distorted. “Spoonman” is the band’s one chance to break free and have fun, to escape from the eerie and terrifying world they have retreated into. “Limo Wreck” is guilt incarnate. “4th Of July” is the agonizing moment when one realizes that all hope is lost. “The Day I Tried To Live” is the wish that things had gone differently. It truly sucks you into all sixteen of its anecdotes, and you will come out of the album a changed person, regardless of whether you even enjoyed the album.
One last thing I want to discuss is the album title. Superunknown is quite possibly the most intelligent album title of all time, simply because of its accuracy. I still don’t know what this album is or what it represents. It seems to have an undeniable sense of unity in that no track off this album could be removed without the quality being sorely affected as a result. However, the album is so jumpy and scatterbrained that it works in the most unpredictable way. Certain things about this album still catch me off guard, like the faint sound of silverware hitting a surface in “Spoonman” or the stomach-churning bass line of “4th Of July”. But then again, there are things that just shouldn’t work (“Half”, “Head Down”, “She Likes Surprises” as a closer instead of “Like Suicide”, Chris Cornell’s literally constant vocal belting in the title track) that boggle my mind because of how much effort Soundgarden put into them and how well they pull them off. This album sounds fresh when everything else is bland and uninteresting. Nothing on here ever gets old, if only for the reason that upon my first few listens everything was so unexpected. For these reasons I can’t give Superunknown anything less than a perfect store. It is one of the few albums ever released that is perfect, and I will stand by that opinion as long as I live.
1. Let Me Drown
2. My Wave
3. Fell On Black Days
6. Head Down
7. Black Hole Sun
9. Limo Wreck
10. The Day I Tried To Live
12. Fresh Tendrils
13. 4th Of July
15. Like Suicide
16. She Likes Surprises