Down On The Upside Turns 20
By 1996, grunge was pretty much over. In the rock sphere, it was ceding ground to the encroaching scourges of post-grunge and nu-metal — both commercially and culturally. All of the iconic artists of the movement were winding down, or already done, as the mid ’90s teetered toward the late ’90s. Nirvana had been over since Kurt Cobain’s death two years prior; Dave Grohl would release Foo Fighters’ The Colour And The Shape in the first half of 1997, an album of a slicker, poppier alt-rock mentality built for a different era than the one that first brought him fame. Alice In Chains essentially ceased to exist as Layne Staley became a recluse and entered the long, tragic final phase of his addiction. Following their infamous Ticketmaster feud, Pearl Jam were in the thick of imploding their mainstream super-stardom, preparing to followup 1994’s Vitalogy with the weird and introspective No Code in August of ’96. Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins — the guys painted as outsiders, losers, or charlatans by the oh-so-authentic grunge era — were at the height of their creative powers. But Billy Corgan was about to make some weird moves, too: After the monumental success of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness in 1995, the next Smashing Pumpkins record would be 1998’s divisive, nocturnal left-turn Adore. By the end of the ’90s, neanderthal rap-rock bands like Limp Bizkit would take the throne; bands like Incubus insisted on having a guy who played turntables in their band. Amidst all of this, Soundgarden ended, too. Following their own titanic mainstream breakthrough, 1994’s Superunknown, they released the erstwhile goodbye of Down On The Upside 20 years ago this past Saturday. It’s an album that sounds like a final, weathered roar of a once-great monolith — fittingly twilit for grunge’s waning days.
Eventually, Soundgarden reunited and released the surprisingly good King Animal in 2012. For years before that, though, Down On The Upside stood as their swan song, making it an entry in two interesting album categories. It is the searching and depleted epilogue to stardom, the insular and shambolic record that didn’t reach the same commercial heights as its predecessor. Superunknown was certified 5x platinum in the US, and remains one of the iconic rock albums of the 1990s. In comparison, Down On The Upside was, uh, just platinum, which is the kind of downturn that really mattered then but registers strangely today considering going platinum at all is a much larger feat. More important is the issue of legacy. Down On The Upside is one of the lost-child albums in the landscape of ’90s American rock music. Nobody talks about this one as being one of the classics. The party was already over. Which situates Down On The Upside as being in another of my favorite album categories — the comedown album. Like what was about to happen in Britpop with albums like Pulp’s This Is Hardcore and Blur’s self-titled and 13, Soundgarden were about to take their success and run it into the ground, which in turn was their small hand in symbolizing the decline of the era in general.
The perfect, nonsensically-’90s title Down On The Upside comes from a lyric in the album’s fourth track, “Dusty.” And maybe that leaves an impression, but if there’s a quality that separates Down On The Upside from Superunknown, it is a ragged, end-of-the-line ethos. Going into this album, the band wanted to experiment more and expand their sonic palette. (Reportedly, disagreements over musical direction are part of what fueled growing tensions within the band, with Soundgarden’s often-underrated guitarist Kim Thayil resisting their movement away from heavier sounds. In the end, he had only one songwriting credit on Down On The Upside, “Never The Machine Forever.”) One goal was to attain a live sound, which resulted in the band self-producing and ultimately releasing an album that, while not quite as raw as people make it out to be, feels grittier than even their more aggressive music pre-Superunknown. There is dirt in the atmosphere of “Blow Up The Outside World,” or “Burden In My Hand,” or “Zero Chance,” or, naturally, “Dusty.” The result of the band reaching for that live sound is that the one-time finality of Down On The Upside seemed to carry a certain weariness that could only come with the baggage of bringing so much earth with you. It’s the sound of wanderers returning home, and the strain of finding themselves back there and looking for something else, something new.
That’s what this album doesn’t get credit for, exactly. Down On The Upside is that post-breakthrough comedown, but within that moment it’s reaching further and weirder than Soundgarden, or many of their Alt Nation contemporaries, ever did. Here, Soundgarden leaned the hardest into their psychedelic inclinations. It’s like a whole album that expands outwards from Superunknown deep cut/highlight “Head Down.” They had always messed with unconventional time signatures and guitar tunings for a rock band, but they did so extensively on Down On The Upside, using that stuff in conjunction with Chris Cornell’s gliding-then-swooping melodies and his powerful growl to achieve a handful of songs that seemed straightforward but existed just to the side of being normal. It’s that stuff that gives “Pretty Noose” it’s lurch, or “Never The Machine Forever” the feeling like you’re fighting within a current that keeps whipping you around and then back again each time it seems like it’s going to release you. (The song is in 9/8, and feels like an elliptical maelstrom.)
What’s most striking to me are the final four songs on the album: “Switch Opens,” “Overfloater,” “An Unkind,” and “Boot Camp.” Collectively, these four songs are the otherworldly final word on Soundgarden’s initial closing chapter. “Switch Opens” floats then tumbles, remaining one of the prettiest songs these guys ever wrote. “Overfloater” is one of those serpentine, foreboding Soundgarden songs that’s trippy while brooding, winding its way to the inevitable explosion at the end, where Cornell’s layered wails and Thayil’s outro solo wrap around each other before one last chorus. “An Unkind” at first seems like a vicious rocker, and then it peels open into one of those inhuman, keening Cornell choruses. And then that collapses into the narcotic surrender of “Boot Camp,” once upon a time the steadily heartbreaking denouement to Soundgarden. There is darkness and resignation in these songs. But sonically, they complete a stunning arc to the album. It begins tortured and disheveled, starts bursting out into careening tracks like “Never The Machine Forever,” and then races headlong into a set that features some of the strangest songs Soundgarden had ever put alongside each other. Cornell sang about a “Room A Thousand Years Wide” back on 1992’s Badmotorfinger, but it was in these moments on Down On The Upside where you could really hear the mystic visions they were grasping at. I always wondered what would’ve happened had they gone deeper down that rabbit hole.
The combination of the dust and the psychedelic lends Down On The Upside an autumnal tone — it’s music composed of burnt oranges and yellows flaring out one more time before expiring. That’s one characteristic that differentiates it from its parallel post-boom comedown albums in Britpop, though; Blur and Pulp were making more fractured statements, but they were still big statements. Down On The Upside is a more personal comedown album, a little note from one voice at the end of a major movement in American rock music, but not a definitive conclusion. It’s quiet even when it’s screaming, the muted document of a band shuddering apart.
Here’s another reason Down On The Upside was on my mind around its anniversary. For several years now, we’ve talked about this or that ’90s revivalism in the current crop of young, often-DIY rock bands. Scuzzy grunge-y bands some years back, bands that sound like Pavement, the emo revival, etc., etc. But it still doesn’t strike me that younger artists have mined the big grunge bands in any way that makes you want to listen to them; the bands we do like who are ’90s-indebted don’t feel related to this stuff at all. Mostly, I hear it discussed as a non-entity or a punchline. People write this stuff off as macho classic rock, positioning a band like Pearl Jam or Soundgarden as more of an extension of jock-y ’80s arena rock than they’d let on, or than they would at all have been comfortable with at the time. And, sure, Down On The Upside still very much sounds like a product of that version of the ’90s, but there’s a lot more going on here, and elsewhere in Soundgarden’s music, than the world of “Black Hole Sun” or whatever other obvious ’90s radio hit. It’s interesting in the context of Soundgarden and the ’90s, because it shows a bunch of megastars making a shambling, cluttered post-script to their commercial peak and their role in grunge’s mainstream moment. Albums like that can be way more intriguing than the classics they follow, because there’s so much more mystery there. As Soundgarden is overlooked or side-lined in general, Down On The Upside is an overlooked gem of the latter half of the ’90s. This is a strange, haunted, furious death-rattle of an album, and 20 years later it still sounds like it has more secrets to uncover.