It’s a testament to how much great music of genuinely enduring substance was being recorded and released 20 years ago that the term “20th anniversary” keeps cropping up in music journalism in regard to seminal albums that have more than stood the test of time.
I’ve written a couple of pieces on this blog along those lines, specifically in regard to Nirvana’s In Utero, Hole’s Live Through This, and a couple of others. Soundgarden’s classic 1994 album Superunknown is one of those era defining pieces of work that more than justifies the various coverage its 20th anniversary re-issues have garnered on-line and in the music press in the passed few months.
Released at a highly volatile and sensitive time in the short “golden age” of the Seattle scene and the broader Alternative Rock scene, Superunknown is regarded as the album that cemented Soundgarden’s position as one of the major crossover acts and one of the four or five definitive rock acts of their era. Having in the preceding few years been plying their trade somewhat in the shadow of fellow Seattle acts Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s respective breakthrough successes, Superunknown was the band’s first No.1 album and was the record that was seen to put Soundgarden into the same fully mainstream-conquering league as those aforementioned bands, despite the fact that they had pre-dated those acts.
None of that is musically relevant, it’s simply background and context.
I remember Superunknown being a big deal to me at the time. Although it was released in March 1994, I didn’t get around to hearing until a couple of months later, by which point Kurt Cobain had gone and Nirvana was finished and I was struggling to continue listening to the music I most loved, especially music associated with the grunge scene, Seattle and the Pacific North-West.
But I made it a point to listen to Superunknown; and I remember that it brought me back to the table somewhat, reinvigorating my desire to listen to music in that genre and to discover new music in general. That would’ve happened eventually anyway, but Soundgarden made it happen a lot quicker. That band and that record were so cool to me that when I wrote a magazine column for a few years I titled it ‘Superunknown’ (the column was about supernatural/paranormal phenomena).
It seems cliched to say it now, but those few years were something of a golden age in rock music, producing artists and albums with a caliber and quality that hasn’t been matched in the two decades since. Kurt Cobain once spoke of that generation’s bands as “the last great wave of rock music”; that statement felt valid even at the time, but it has acquired even more validity as we look back from our substance-starved 2014 vantage.
If that was the “last great wave”, as Kurt called it, then Soundgarden were one of the major crests of that wave, and Superunknown one of its most important works.
For all that, it actually isn’t my favorite Soundgarden album overall; I still prefer its predecessor Bad Motorfinger and its successor 1996’s Down On the Upside. But Superunknown has a powerful aura about it overall that isn’t equalled by those other albums; possibly this is partly because of the time in which it was released or possibly because of the highly effective tunings and time signatures that permeate the record and give it its distinct, off-kilter vibe.
Those unorthodox alternative tunings and odd time signatures are often mentioned when the album is discussed; Limo Wreck and 4th of July, probably my two favorite songs on the album, are both somewhat off-kilter compositions that somehow sound ‘wrong’ yet work beautifully. They’re both brilliant songs, but I’m not sure why; they have an almost otherworldly quality to them, like music somehow a touch out of quantum synch with our universe. Or something like that.
In general the entire record has a thick, fulsome sound that really embeds itself in the senses, a result of effective and versatile tunings and of expert production and mixing. All of that amplifies the key, central quality of course; which is that of a band performing at the peak of its powers. Matt Cameron’s sturdy, dependable drum-meistery, Ben Shepard’s rich, fattened bass playing, the unmistakable guitar duality of Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil, and of course Cornell’s powerful, inimitable vocals, all combining fluidly, seamlessly, to create a singular brand of rock magic that is both solid and expansive.
Black Hole Sun is sublime, almost hymnal; and who could forget its video – one of the weirdest and best music videos of its time (the track also has the honour of having been parodied by Weird Al Yankovic; a true marker of cross-cultural penetration)? The Day I Tried To Live is gorgeously melodic perfection that nevertheless doesn’t sacrifice heaviness or fullness of sound, while the likes of My Wave and Kickstand are just classic hard-driven rock n roll in the best sense.
Even the stranger pieces, like Head Down are oddly addictive in their subtle psychedelia. There is for that matter a psychedelic feel to much of Superunknown, an album that feels like it might’ve been equally at home in the late sixties (where additionally its accompanying heaviness would’ve been a revelation to the flower-power generation) or in the seventies (where it might’ve played like a more sophisticated, more evolved successor to Black Sabbath). Even in the middle of the nineties it still felt half like something from the past and half like something innovative in its own era.
Thematically regarded by some as a dark and even somewhat ‘depressing’ album, I’ve never really seen it that way. Maybe that’s because compared to Nirvana’s In Utero, which was heavily in my consciousness at that period in time, nothing is quite so dark. Certainly even compared to the gritty bleakness of Alice in Chains’s monumental Dirt album, nothing on Superunknown quite enters that degree of compulsive grimness and there’s nothing on the album I consider ‘depressing’; some of it, on the contrary – The Day I Tried To Live, for example – is pretty upbeat, even (gasp) cheerful.
In reference to the album’s lyrical themes, guitarist Kim Thayil once said that Superunknown seemed more “to be about life, not death”.
Earlier this summer, Soundgarden celebrated the 20th anniversary of the album with a special reissue in two deluxe formats, featuring a remastered album and also including previously unreleased demos from the Superunknown sessions, as well as rehearsal recordings and B-sides, along with never-before-seen photography and reimagined album artwork. It expands Superunknown’s legacy and its identity even further and provides a treasure-trove of material for fans to explore.
Meanwhile Soundgarden’s reforming, much like the reforming of Alice in Chains, has been a cause for celebration; having a band of that caliber and quality back in the studio and back on the road is a gift to the otherwise largely diminishing art of guitar-based music in the 21st century. And the higher points of their comeback album King Animal, especially songs like ‘Been Away Too Long’ and ‘Bones of Birds’, demonstrate that Soundgarden can still roll back the years and seriously do the business; not just do the business, but do it with a quality and an authority that musicians and bands half their age don’t seem able to anymore.
And if Superunknown is generally regarded as Soundgarden’s defining statement, it is a demonstration of that band’s immense qualities that they followed it up in 1996 with, in my opinion, an even better album.