My relationship with “Superunknown” by Soundgarden has been a 17 year long affair and after all this time it is still an album that I’m discovering. My first flirtation with this album started purely with four songs on Soundgarden’s A-Sides compilation. Those songs were “Spoonman,” “The Day I Tried To Live,” “Black Hole Sun” and “Fell On Black Days” which were some of the bands biggest radio singles circa 1994 / 1995. Anyone who was a teenager in that glorious period between 1994 and 1997 knew about the healing power of “Black Hole Sun” which like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana became one of the established anthems of youth culture / angst and one of the definitive musical statements of the 1990’s decade. Although my journey with “Superunknown” started with these four songs in 1997, it wasn’t until 1999 that I would finally discover all of the mystery and darkness of this album.
To set the scene, it’s probably wise for me to establish that through my older brother I was first exposed to Soundgarden as a band in 1996 via their “Down On The Upside” album. This was my original starting point with the band and beyond the “A-Sides” compilation the only other experience I had with Soundgarden prior to my “Superunknown” discovery was with their second album “Louder Than Love” which was an album I acquired through one of my Brothers Friends. I wouldn’t discover the beauty and grace of “Louder Than Love” as an album until later in my teenage years and early twenties.
The one song that prepared me for my “Superunknown” experience was “Fell On Black Days” which was the albums fifth and final single (released May 1995). My first experience of this song was as mentioned above on the bands “A-Sides” compilation in 1997. As dark and moody as “Fell On Black Days” is, at its core it is a brilliant pop song. The grind and distorted bliss of it all provides a fantastic frame for the pop skills on display and as my understanding of music grew I started to hear that a song like “Fell On Black Days” is more Beatles than it is Led Zeppelin. The pace of this song swings best late in the afternoon as the sun is going down and dirge of your day is coming to a halt. That thick orange sky that is flirting with the darkness of the night gives the perfect visual illustration of what this song is communicating.
When I heard “Fell On Black Days” for the first time in 1997 I fell deeply in love with that sound and that Mood. It was incredibly dark but also extremely mysterious with the pain of existence accurately captured both lyrically and musically. It painted a grim picture but also latched itself onto some kind of hope. There was a need and a desire for the author of the song to escape the crippling darkness and an overall willingness for joy to resurrect them some plateaus of peace. This wasn’t just a song dealing with the trivial growing pains of teen angst; it was rooted in that real world drama that comes with adult life and that constant need for escapism.
When I was an alienated obese teenager it provided comfort and strength but I wouldn’t really feel and understand a song like “Fell On Black Days” until I lived a little more life. When I listen to it now as a 30 year old human I can’t help but hear that this song is more a reflection on the angst of knowing you’ll die more than it is about depression. The way it shapes the hopelessness and drudgery of routine provides the biggest glimpse that a degree of slumped “what’s the point, we’re all going to die” thoughts race in and out of every lyrical passage of the song. I can’t speak specifically about what Chris Cornell’s muse was for this song but one thing is for sure, this song is about a deep heavy sense of loss and your inability to control the pace of life.
This bleak sunshine radiates quite frequently over the course of “Superunknown” and although it has the ability to sound like the perfect soundtrack to the end of the world it is more apt that this album deals thematically with your own personal apocalypse and the crippling saga of a dark descent into a beautiful kind of numbness. You could read into the lyrics and piece together this album like it is some kind of concept record but realistically the overall moodiness of it is what makes “Superunknown” a consistent rush of dark emotions and peering over the edge optimism.
As and album experience “Superunknown” saw Soundgarden tearing apart their sound and experimenting heavily with new musical dynamics in order to create their own unique sonic dialogue. Whilst the band always was unique from a sound point of view, stylistically they wore their influences on their sleeve on their earlier albums. From “Screaming Life / Fopp” through to “Badmotorfinger” Soundgarden illustrated an ability to combine the intensity of heavy metal with the pace of punk rock and the grime of Black Flag era hardcore. Combine this heaviness with a healthy interest in weirdness (in the vein of Butthole Surfers), 60’s and 70’s psychedelic rock, peppering’s of Prog Rock and you get a pretty good idea of how the band was attempting to communicate. You could use many different genre tags to describe it but quite honestly the simplest way is to say it was just heavy. It didn’t matter how loud or quiet, fast or slow or weird the band was being they were fucking intense and extremely heavy.
The band’s knack for pop skills still appeared every once in a while in the early albums but it wasn’t until “Superunknown” that the band fully explored this dynamic in their music. I’m not quite sure when I started to think this, but I’ve always seen “Superunknown” as the closest experience to a modern heavy metal soaked Beatles as any band in the 1990’s or 2000’s would get. There is something very “Sgt Peppers” about the way “Superunknown” unfolds and whilst people can debate about the legitimacy of which album serves as the best version of Soundgarden, one thing remains true and that is that “Superunknown” was and still is the bands masterpiece.
This brings me to the first time I heard “Superunknown” in its entirety. It was 1999 and after a desperate hustle I managed to acquire a secondhand copy of “Superunknown” from my friend Ben Steward. I’m not quite sure how I orchestrated it but I managed to swap or buy Ben Stewards copy of “Superunknown” and although it was slightly used and second-hand the magic of the music was still very accessible on the disc.
The first memory I have of “Superunknown” is sitting down in my bedroom circa 1999 the afternoon after I acquired it from my high school friend Ben Steward and looking through the inlay card and marvelling at the album’s artwork. The mysterious cover presented somewhat of a puzzle and perhaps I was incredibly naïve back then but it took me ages to realise that it was a distorted photo of the band. Flipping through the pages of the inlay card really allowed for the mystery and wonder to multiply as the use of specific colours and photographs allowed for the bleak mood of “Superunknown” to be set before I even pressed play. After spending a good half hour studying the album artwork and reading the lyrics printed within the inlay card I finally put the album in my CD player, lay down on my bed and heard the first distorted gallop of “Superunknown” hit me as the opening track “Let Me Drown” gently exploded from my speakers.
As is the case with every album that changed my life, I always tend to remember a specific group of songs that jumped out and connected with me upon that initial listen. These are the types of songs that really illustrate to you that what you are witnessing is a work of pure artistic genius. During the course of my first listen to “Superunknown” that honour belonged to three tracks in particular, the sixth track “Head Down” the albums epic thirteenth track “4th Of July” and the album closer “Like Suicide” (well technical album closer – “She Likes Surprises” is a bonus track). There is no real magic reason as to why these songs positioned themselves as the “holy fucking shit” moment for me, all I remember is the sheer velocity at which these tracks synced into my ears and caused a kaleidoscope of emotions. These songs were very fucking heavy and apt introductions to the shivering darkness presented all throughout “Superunknown” and are the perfect introduction to how you will be swung between so many varying landscapes during the initial listening experience.
From start to finish “Superunknown” is a collection of highly intelligent rock n roll funded by a group of individuals clearly burnt and disappointed by the crippling lack of privacy that fame and success brought them. This seemed like a typical template for all of the bands from that era to follow due to the explosion of the Alternative Nation but no one quite captured the disappointment and burden of fame and success like Soundgarden did on “Superunknown” and whilst the album isn’t strictly thematically linked to this topic it’s hard not to connect the dots considering all of the “end of the world” imagery used throughout the albums lyrics. The fact that Kurt Cobain would selfishly take his own life barely a month after the release of “Superunknown” is in a lot of ways a spooky coincidence. Although there is no clear link between what “Superunknown” is communicating and what Kurt Cobain would go on to do, it is indeed hard not to ignore a clash in the themes. These themes were present in all those bands that changed the world so viciously in the early 1990’s. The difference between someone like Kurt Cobain and someone like Chris Cornell is that Cobain became a causality whereas Cornell struggled through it and with “Superunknown” sung so vividly about how much struggle he was suffering under.
Whilst “Superunknown” is the result of four very talented artists working in sync with each other, the real star of the album is without a doubt Chris Cornell and his magnificent voice. All the beautiful magic of the guitars, bass and drums wouldn’t be as potent if it wasn’t for Cornell’s voice and overall melodic influence. Even on the songs he didn’t write, he still acts as the perfect interpreter and delivers the words and melodies like they were his own. I think Cornell has always been unfairly compared to Robert Plant and whilst I understand the comparison I always felt like he was trying to channel John Lennon. It may not be an obvious component of his voice or songwriting but if you study Soundgarden the way I have you’ll hear how important The Beatles were to shaping the band’s sound.
To speak strictly about the Cornell star power is to ignore the talent of the other players and songwriters in Soundgarden and on “Superunknown” we get to hear the importance of Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd on an even deeper level than before. Although Thayil’s writing credits are limited on “Superunknown” his influence over the guitars is mighty. More than just a lead player, Thayil colours each track with a degree of understated class whether he is riffing or playing a delicate lead. He never overstays his welcome and always fits into each song perfectly giving a darker more psychedelic vision to each note presented. His lead work on the albums biggest single “Black Hole Sun” was pivotal in making the song so memorable but also so weird, dark and heavy.
No matter how great the songs or the songwriter, every great band needs an amazing rhythm section. A great bass player and inventive drummer will take simple songs to places initially undreamed of in the bedroom acoustic demo phase. It’s no secret that Soundgarden has one of the best rhythm sections in Modern rock with no one in the alternative rock landscape coming close to their inventiveness and power. The bonus of what Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd do as a rhythm section is that they are also quite brilliant songwriters, they understand what a good song needs to do. It is this understanding of the songwriting process that allows them both to be so creative with how they construct and broadcast the rhythm and groove of the songs.
The songwriting of Cameron and Shepherd is also one of the reasons why “Superunknown” presents itself as such a unique piece of rock n roll. One of the stand out tracks on “Superunknown” is the Shepherd penned track “Head Down” which is the best argument sonically for how Soundgarden evolved that slick psychedelic pop sound championed by the Beatles during their “Sgt Peppers” phase. This influence is explored deeper and communicated with more direct lineage on another Shepherd penned track “Half” which sees him take lead vocals. It has taken me years to fully appreciate the inclusion of “Half” on “Superunknown” but after years of listening to this album I feel that it is one of the most interesting and perfect examples of what makes Soundgarden so great. Sonically, “Half” sounds like the kind on song that George Harrison would have contributed and it carries a heavy dose of “Within You Without You” but it sounds supremely more evolved and in my humble opinion, better.
Then there is the music that Matt Cameron wrote which any educated human will tell you is some of the finest entries into the rock n roll dialogue ever. Just take one listen to “Superunknown’s” fourth track “Mailman” and you’ll hear how Cameron managed to write a song that became a template for the Stoner Rock genre. The genius of Matt Cameron’s skills doesn’t end there, take one listen to “Fresh Tendrils” and you’ll understand my argument for why this album is linked so heavily with The Beatles and all of the Psychedelic music of the 60’s. The amazing component of Cameron’s songwriting is the way he manages to combine such intense and complicated rhythmic structure to the simplicity of a pop song melody. To make the music so diverse from a time signature point of view and to avoid the trappings of having it sound like pure soulless mathematics is a skill but somehow Matt Cameron pulls it off with the same understated style and grace that Thayil does with his guitar playing.
The real centrepiece moment of “Superunknown” is without a doubt the albums ninth track “Limo Wreck” which stretches out over five minutes and forty-seven seconds. This is the song I always use to showcase why I love Soundgarden and it is always one of my first choices when I’m making a mixtape / cd for another human. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve sat amongst the tortured sway of “Limo Wreck” and just mused on the beauty of what this song is describing. On the surface the song is a tale of loss and focuses heavily on the destructive power that comes with the rise of the ego and how all good things that go up must come down. Instantly you can connect the lyrics to the circumstance Soundgarden and the rest of the alternative nation found themselves in when the mainstream appeal of their music became so overwhelming that it was merely reduced to fashion as opposed to an exercise in pure expression. The chorus of “Limo Wreck” is a haunting refrain about the destruction and cycle of celebrity and cultural trends in general.
Earlier in this article I mentioned how eerie an album “Superunknown” is considering that Kurt Cobain killed himself not long after its release. If you listen to “Limo Wreck” closely and analyse the lyrics you can almost feel a shiver run across your spine. It is so incredibly spot on with the turn of events that was to follow the release of “Superunknown” and how it would change the world. One passage of lyrics that really stand out in regards to “Limo Wreck” is as follows:
“I’ll be going down for the rest of the slide While the rest of you harvest the gold
And the wreck of you Is the death of you all And the wreck of you Is the break and the fall I’m the wreck of you I’m the death of you all I’m the wreck of you I’m the break and the fall”
You’d be foolish not to feel a little bit spooked with how accurate these words are in terms of describing what Kurt Cobain managed to do with his death. The nature of trend will always allow for a popular scene to die out and for something new to birth but with the alternative nation and grunge era it was Cobain’s death that signalled an ugly end to the mainstream view of the bands birthed from the era. This was then replaced with cleaner more “market ready” more “celebrity hungry” alt rock heroes who managed to ruin all that was good about guitar driven rock n roll. Perhaps I’m reading too deeply into the lyrics of “Limo Wreck” but it is hard not to review these lyrics and see just how they predicted the future of the alternative nation. I especially love the line “While The Rest of You Harvest The Gold” which in my opinion sums up just what the music industry did after Cobain’s death.
Clint Morrow also has some words to say about “Superunknown” so before I rush to my conclusion I’d like you to read his thoughts on this album:
“Superunknown was the album where Soundgarden grew up. No longer content just to write heavy riffs, thrash around, and ape Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, Soundgarden finally forged their own identity. Songs like ‘My Wave’, ‘Fell On Black Days’, ‘Superunknown’, Black Hole Sun’, ‘Spoonman’ and ‘The Day I Tried To Live’ showed a new maturity and sophistication that were never fully realised on Badmotorfinger. In particular, touches like the Eastern-tinged vocal harmonies towards the end of ‘My Wave’ displayed a depth that had never even been hinted at on previous records. Superunknown is always my go-to Soundgarden record; not just because it’s their best album, but because it’s one of the greatest heavy rock/metal albums ever released, and quite frankly, I prefer a side of texture and sophistication with my riffs.” – Clint Morrow
It’s no secret to those that know me just how much I adore the music made by Soundgarden. When I sat down to plan out this article I had to keep reminding myself that “Superunknown” was in fact turning twenty. I’m sure everyone says it about their favourite albums but I honestly find it hard to fathom that so much time as passed since the release of this album. Culturally there has been a dramatic shift in what people deem as popular and although Soundgarden to the youth of today may sound like “classic rock,” to those of us that lived through it, the album still sounds as exciting and as potent as it did when it was released in 1994. People will forever talk about how a great album changes with you and how the discovery process of the music presented lingers long after you first encounter it. In my life “Superunknown” is definitely one of those albums. It is the sound of my youth and my yearning to survive it and to somehow find a level of peace. As I grew so did my understanding of what “Superunknown” represents and was attempting to communicate. I often wrestle with angst and the weight of existence but through music I am guided to a level of escapism that cannot be reached through the recreational or pointless pursuits of “having fun” or whatever they call it these days. For the past seventeen years it has been the music of Soundgarden that has soundtracked this journey and allowed me to find some kind of remedy to all that aches within me emotionally.
I wasn’t alive when The Beatles were at the height of their creativity or when Led Zeppelin changed the rock n roll landscape. I wasn’t fortunate enough to be born when Black Sabbath introduced the world to heavy metal or when Punk Rock came screaming out of the underground. I am proud to say that I was alive when a group of bands from Seattle spearheaded a movement of music known as a Grunge. I’m grateful that I have the memory of knowing what that era felt like and that I got to experience those bands at the height of their popularity. All of the musicians from that era have gone on to write music that is just as relevant as their more commercially “known” material and I still support every single one of them, not because of nostalgia but because they all evolved and got even cooler. It’s just that nature of all things that it goes up and then goes down and then somehow becomes cool again.
I’m confident that with “Superunknown” Soundgarden managed to make better music than The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Historically we may not be ready to admit that just yet but over time I think people will begin to see the value and influence of “Superunknown” and that the key ingredient to not only Soundgarden’s success but the whole Grunge movement was that they didn’t use nostalgia to evolve the rock n roll language. Each band had an original and unique voice that set the pace for generations to come. There have been so many great rock n roll bands since that era that have evolved that language but there is something to be said about that moment in time in terms of how all of those bands influenced culture and how no one since then has learned to better it, they just harvest the gold.
By: Dan Newton