Superunknown Turns 20
This year is going to be a strange one for anniversaries. On one hand, we have a slew of British albums turning twenty — Definitely Maybe, His ‘N’ Hers, Parklife — that mark the rise of Britpop. While that movement was just starting up across the ocean, over here grunge was simultaneously huge but also dwindling. In Utero turned twenty last year, as did Pearl Jam’s VS.; this year the latter’s Vitalogy will also hit the milestone. And, of course, here we have Soundgarden’s Superunknown, in many ways the band’s peak, which will be twenty years old tomorrow. Between Cobain’s suicide, Pearl Jam’s willed removal from the spotlight, and Soundgarden’s 1997 breakup, this chapter of American rock music was already coming around to its conclusion. There would still be major works from prominent American artists to follow — Weezer’s debut also turns twenty in June, which was then followed by Pinkerton in 1996; the beginning of the reign of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie hits two decades next year — but by and large, when looking back, albums like Superunknown start to feel like markers of the end of an era, even while this one garnered Soundgarden their greatest success.
That feeling is compounded — or, perhaps, maybe even rooted in — the fact that when you take a look at the anniversaries we’re recognizing this year, there’s a pretty severe gap between what can still be considered to be a relevant influence on more contemporary music. It’s not difficult to hear strains of Britpop in different corners of the indie world, or at least be able to see Britpop as a connective tissue between older artists and newer ones. Conversely, when’s the last time you heard a band you liked and thought they reminded you of Soundgarden? Grunge occupies a strange place in our music history right now. Whether in music writers’ and editors’ decisions to look at the ’90s more through the prism of indie, or whether in a still-lingering urge to dismiss those who went from “alternative” to Platinum, bands like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam are often the sort that get referred to as functioning antiques, adorned with backhanded compliments.
When I still listened to the radio, I’d begun to hear songs like “Spoonman” or “Black Hole Sun” or “Fell On Black Days” show up on classic rock stations. Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and Nirvana, for a host of reasons that have to do with how the music industry has changed as well as their actual sound, are of the last generation that could realistically — even if it’s a stretch, and at odds with much of what the early ’90s originally symbolized — be added to the classic rock canon. (Unless, for some reason you live in a town where classic rock radio also insists on adopting 3 Doors Down’s “When I’m Gone,” like mine did.) The problem — at least if your classic rock station is like the ones in small town Pennsylvania — is that this places the grunge bands alongside artists like Guns ‘N’ Roses and Motley Crue, or your typical selection of never-disappearing classic rock standby one-hits.
This was always a core tension in Soundgarden’s career: they had their roots in the same music of all the other bands that would go on to be deemed alternative, but they also had a foot in the world that allowed them to open for Skid Row and Guns ‘N’ Roses. Add in the fact that the memory of early ’90s American alternative is sullied in general by what it begat — Korn’s debut turns 20 this year, too, just so you know. It was a strange moment that allowed brooding music like Superunknown to garner major mainstream hits, but that quickly ceded to the very cartoonish version of angst that dominated all that Hot Topic rock and rap metal of the later ’90s, the only stuff that (unfortunately) came directly out of the early ’90s grunge boom. Collectively, between a lack of noticeable influence on any of the music we talk about and listen to frequently today (at least in a still indie-rock-focused music media) and an unhip placement in the canon, if you’re any younger than your early 30s and you express an earnest appreciation — let alone say you’re actually a fan — of early ’90s alt-rock, you will get some raised eyebrows.
This is a shame, because Superunknown is one of the great albums of the last twenty years. Depending on where you approach Soundgarden from, though, it can be a bit of a line in the sand. There are still those who either followed Soundgarden from their underground roots, or come at them from more of a metal direction, who look at their first three records as being unequivocally better than what followed. Part of that is the old “now they’re too popular” thing, part of it is that Superunknown represented a distinct change in the band’s sound. It was a more or less logical extension from the psychedelic elements they’d begun introducing on the record’s predecessor, 1991’s Badmotorfinger, but it was a logical extension that seemed to skip several steps. Chris Cornell still had an immensely powerful voice and range, but he wielded his gifts far differently than the metal wail he’d still affected through much of Badmotorfinger. Now his voice had started to take on more grit and texture, with him readily transitioning between the full-throated choruses and more haunted, almost crooned parts. There was still a heaviness to their music, but that too was deployed differently. Much of Superunknown came more out of the bluesier metal of “Outshined” than it did out of the punishing “Jesus Christ Pose.” The grooves became more dynamic and varied, starting to sound like Led Zeppelin updated for the ’90s through the influence of punk and metal, rather than sounding like actual punk and metal. Whether instrumentally or vocally, what this all boiled down to of course was that Soundgarden had started to let in more pop influence, and had begun writing more melodically focused music. When you can step back and look at the trajectory of the five albums that comprised Soundgarden’s original run, the transition makes sense, but it’s also understandable how some fans were put off by it.
Where one thing was slightly destroyed though, another appeared. Superunknown was the major pop crossover moment for Soundgarden. Its five singles — “Spoonman,” “The Day I Tried To Live,” “Black Hole Sun,” “My Wave,” and “Fell On Black Days” — were all Top 20 hits. “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun” each earned them Grammys. It’s been certified Platinum a few times over. For better of for worse, it became one of the foremost releases of its time, one of those names you can just throw out and have it sum up a great deal about America in the first half of the ’90s.
The negative fallout of such a thing is that certain songs get so over-exposed as to lose all their impact. Out of any of Superunknown’s hits, only “The Day I Tried To Live” still hits me on a visceral level. The rest are the sort you can sort of distantly appreciate — like, you can objectively say “Fell On Black Days” is good stuff — but it’s hard to relate to them much anymore. They have that sort of flattened, “this is an unchanging leftover bit of the past” vibe to them in the same way that, after hearing them way too much, other ’90s stalwarts like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Evenflow” do. When you get told over and over how revolutionary something was, and then hear it constantly for the following two decades, I’m not sure you even really hear the notes anymore. It’s just a thing that happens off to the side of your ears. Maybe it’s different for you, but I’ve always found this to be the weak link in the experience of listening to Superunknown, and maybe it’s one of those things that stifles an interest in younger listeners. With an album as prominent as Superunknown, some of its material becomes difficult to have much of a personal relationship to. And even with the speed at which things age in the 21st century, maybe twenty years isn’t quite enough distance for “Black Hole Sun” to start feeling fresh again (and, as a paradoxical result, immortal) in the way that, say, “Gimme Shelter” or “When The Levee Breaks” must have had to at some point.
Thankfully, the rest of Superunknown is a thoroughly rewarding experience. All of Soundgarden’s trademarks are on display, from the aforementioned strength of Cornell as a frontman, to Kim Thayil’s far-reaching and far-seeing style(s) of guitar-playing, to the monolithic power of a rhythm section comprised of Matt Cameron on drums and Ben Shepherd on bass. Outlandish tunings and uncustomary time signatures abound, which is something this band never quite gets enough credit for. Such moves are the sort of things that could make prog and metal inscrutable and needlessly show-offy, but Soundgarden always managed to make use of them so the inherent weirdness of the songs you were hearing wasn’t always evident on the surface. It’s unfortunate when people write Soundgarden off as just this other hard rock band, because there is some nuanced and exotic stuff going on, even in some of their most popular hits. (“The Day I Tried To Live” is in the totally bizarre tuning EEBBBB, as opposed to the standard EADGBE, for example.)
Fittingly for an album that killed off one version of Soundgarden to birth another, much of Superunknown revolves around interplays between death and life, with almost a dark mysticism to it. That tone is set by the cover — a heavily distorted photo of the band placed above an inverted black and white image of a burning forest — but continues through the strains of unnerving psychedelia the band began injecting into their music. The super-recognizable hits off Superunknown function as signposts in a journey that’s more eerie than you’d ever expect from such a successful album. Deeper cuts like “Half,” “Fresh Tendrils,” “Head Down,” or “4th of July” — the latter two of which are fan favorites — are the sort of songs that feel like a rupture in reality. Actually, the idea of walking through a burning forest drained of all life and color, with a sky of heavy black and volcanic reds and oranges, is exactly the sort of imagery conjured by these songs. That’s the dark mysticism, the mingling of death and some other, stranger life we don’t quite understand.
Superunknown clocks in at 70 minutes over the course of fifteen songs, which doesn’t make it the longest album ever or even its era, but still feels massive today for reasons I can’t entirely put my finger on. Sure, people still make ambitious albums, and they still make lengthy ones. But there’s a scope and a reach to Superunknown that, perhaps more than any sonic elements, make it feel inextricably like a bygone era. An era right before that onslaught of anxieties that come with the internet’s frenetically paced change and economic shakeups. Superunknown feels like a massive ’90s album that couldn’t quite exist now, because its massiveness is rooted in the fact that it was a sprawling, demanding, and rewarding experience that also happened to be a major pop force. It’s a twisting, dark road of an album, but also a thoroughly magnanimous one — the super-sized album experience that now stands out as a remnant of an era that can retroactively be seen as the last great hurrah of a music industry at the absurdist peak of its success before everyone suddenly stopped buying albums. Because of the myriad circumstances that characterize how music is presented and consumed in 2014, as well as how the mainstream has mostly moved past rock music, I’m not sure we’ll ever see something like Superunknown happen again. Which is fine; the general breakdown of borders these days is probably better for everyone. All it means is that Superunknown is a relic, even if it’s still an invigorating one. It’s a titanic listen, a record that — whether it simply takes you into the past or into places outside time altogether — deserves revisiting.