Superunknown

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The true joy of a classic album is that there is a sense of collectivism around the way it is consumed. Albums have a way of capturing the mood of the society into which they are released indeed sometimes they shape the time and define an era. The advent of grunge in the early 90s witnessed punk go overground in America. The alternative became the mainstream and Seattle became the beating pulse at the epicentre of the ‘new’ phenomena sweeping all before it. Nirvana came and conquered and Pearl Jam shifted the units and for a brief moment guitars up and down the land were battering out either Even Flow or Smells like Teen Spirit. However, the band from that time that meant the most to me were Soundgarden. They were never as immediate as the other two, they didn’t have, what is modernly termed, an earworm, particularly on their album Badmotorfinger. In truth it took me time to get into that album but since then I have never gotten out of it.

After Badmotorfinger I couldn’t wait for the follow-up, which was released twenty years ago and was entitled Superunknown. Now, the album is probably best known for third single Black Hole Sun ( the first single was Spoonman) and whilst both are great in their own right they only scratch the surface of what is contained in the groove known as the spiral scratch. The musicianship and songwriting on this album is second to none. On drums Matt Cameron reminds me of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, not sonically but in the sense that his beats sound deceptively simple but when you try to play them they are very complex and both are drummers of feeling. They know where the space is and where the fill is and they push the groove accordingly. This was the bands second album with the bassist Ben Shepard and he complemented Cameron superbly. He has that real jazz style that allows him to both anchor a riff and go off on flights of fancy simultaneously. Kim Thayil is a tuned down riff machine probably the best of his type since Tony Iommi emerged back in the sixties. Thayil is just a very inventive guitarist with a real idiosyncratic style which I think is the hallmark of the greats.

Where I come from it is unfashionable to mention musical prowess and that is an argument best left for another day however, I do think that musicianship is important especially  when a band wishes to create a statement that reflects themselves. Some of the greatest albums have been made with three chords but that does not mean that we should adhere to a narrow dogma that states : ‘You shall become this proficient on your instrument and move no further’. That is as dogmatic as the one that insists you have to understand theory to play! I bring this up to foreground that Soundgarden had the chops to produce music of the quality and intensity needed to produce a classic.

Wither the singer? Well Chris Cornell is majestic. His voice is a thing of greatness and his lyrics, whilst surrealistic at times, also have a great emotional depth. He catapults the songs to greatness. The album opens with Let Me Drown, it is full of biblical images backed by that tuned down mean riffage beloved of the grunge era. The lyrics also allude to light and dark, a reoccurring motif of the album. At once self-contained and wide open it is a great opener. My Wave follows, all bravado and it is clear the band aren’t taking any prisoners. It is a statement of intent that says: Step off. Fell on Black Days is one of my favourite Cornell lyrics. He plumbs the depths of the soul as he contemplates every wrong he has ever done. Thayil makes the guitar cry and Shepard does this little plaintive circular bassline that just suits the downbeat mood. Mailman continues this mood and it has a glorious chord sequence and soaring vocal that shows the band are in the zone. Superunknown opens with a classic Thayil riff and the low-end of the chorus threatens to destroy the speakers. Cornell contemplates the universe and humanities place within it and finds that it steals both mind and soul. Side one closer Head Down is in similar territory and is both celebratory and melancholic.

Side two opens with Black Hole Sun followed by Spoonman both were the closest to popular earworms the band ever had (although around 94-95 Black Hole Sun could be heard everywhere). Fresh Tendrils, Limo Wreak, The Day I Tried to Live and 4th of July are the gems of the second side and carry that low dark tunage that is a hallmark of the album particularly the latter track which is dirge like and paints a Hellish vision of life. There are some weaker moments notably Half, She Likes Surprises” Like Suicide and Kick Stand. They are good songs in their own right but to my mind don’t suit the mood of the album.

As I said at the start a classic album has that sense of collectivism and this was the last album that I really remember listening to while sitting around with a few friends in a kitchen. In a way the album marked the end of the Seattle grunge scene and in our neck of the woods Britpop took over and when it did that was me gone, I didn’t have the time to listen to fourth-rate Slade tribute acts (God I remember hearing Oasis and their rip off of I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing and I seriously thought it was a piss take). For me 94 was about this album it has been twenty years since it’s release and if you haven’t heard it you know what to do.

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  1. What a great piece of writing. Your descriptions are superb. They conjure the images with clarity. How many more albums are you going to mention that I’ve never listened to and say “I’m going to buy that and check it out”?

  2. Thanks Jamhenry! I hope that I have a few more albums in me that you will want to go out and buy 🙂

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