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Heavy metal fans tend to be a stubborn bunch, especially when it comes to preserving that particular aesthetic they’ve grown to cherish. Despite how embellished and liberal one’s favored subgenre might appear to be, from Progressive Viking Doom to Blackened Etruscan Jazz-Polka-core, you might be surprised how conservative they become when their bands of choice start leaning in a direction that could be construed as commercially-minded. Personally, I don’t mind this tendency a single bit. For me, it’s a rather dependable quality amongst the staunch metalheads; their respect can rapidly lead to derision when they detect the slightest whiff of a once fresh artist starting to turn sour. Whether that tainted “sellout” moment is for the better or the worse from my perspective is mostly irrelevant, as the whistleblowers are not in a position to tell me what I will or won’t enjoy. Instead, they simply and frankly tell me that something has changed. There’s a glitch in The Matrix and these are not the droids that I’m looking for.
All that given, you can imagine my surprise when I was browsing these Archives, an excellent cross-section of the metal community whole, and found that Soundgarden’s Superunknown was held in extremely high esteem. “One of the most impressive releases of the 90’s” I read. “As far away from grunge as you can get” I read elsewhere. To quote the Internet: “O rly?” Have I been listening to the wrong album these last eighteen years? Was this not the third jewel in grunge’s three-prong crown? One of the wildly successful albums that, along with Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten, provided the blueprints to success for dozens of late 90’s rock bands like The Goo Goo Dolls, Bush, and Candlebox? Sure, Badmotorfinger was released closer to the subgenre’s peak and both Alice in Chains’ Dirt and Stone Temple Pilots’ Core were contenders in this department, but was not Superunknown a popular, heavy-selling, textbook example of the “Seattle sound” and its dreary excesses? Despite this unlikely setting, it seems that the metal populace actually agrees with the mainstream consensus in at least this case.
Suffice it to say, I still don’t see what all the fuss is about over this one. First off, we’ve got the hits, the ones that most people familiar with this band have heard on the radio at some point or another and led them to or fro. There’s a reason these tracks got airplay: they’re among the least caustic in the band’s catalogue to this point. The painfully overplayed “Black Hole Sun” is, for all intents and purposes, a power ballad. Sure, it’s got that darker 90’s tint to it, but it’s just as repetitive and accessible as what the hair bands were doing. “Spoonman” is more rock-oriented but it’s downright annoying, reminding me of some generic Stone Temple Pilots B-side. “But dawnoftheshred, they overdubbed spoons in with the rhythm track, you don’t hear that every day.” Ah yes, congratulations, you’ve spotted a gimmick. In half a dozen listens when the novelty wears off, come back and talk to me. Even the likably mellow “Fell on Black Days” is just too damn presentable. Remember when these guys were cheeky noisemongers and couldn’t give less of a shit about writing nice, neat music for the radio people? I sure do. Part of the appeal of their older stuff, even including major label ‘hits’ like “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage,” was the fact that these tracks were likable despite how awkward and uncouth they were. Charming in spite of itself, kind of like an attractive nerdy girl. Maybe I’m alone in this analogy, but I find in that particular chick’s purported awkwardness a window into a unique and desirable personality. The glasses, the shyness, the poor fashion sense; these qualities tend to enhance her beauty for me, rather than detract from it. Soundgarden, among other great, quirky bands like Budgie and Uriah Heep, are the musical equivalent of this nerdy girl, and a fair portion of this album is her trying to fit in at the homecoming dance, trading those glasses for contacts and doing her damnedest to blend in with everybody else.
This leads us to the second-stringers, the songs that might have been hits if they didn’t simply drone along so purposelessly. Accessible enough for the radio, but not held in high enough esteem by the band that created them. Opener “Let Me Drown” is a great example of this. Rather than charging out the door and catching everyone’s attention like “Rusty Cage” did and continues to do, this one lacks the character needed to kick off seventy minutes of rock ‘n’ roll, much less seventy minutes of heavy metal. There’s some bizarre sliding guitar riffs in there if one takes the time to appreciate the band’s subtlety, but the song as a whole still feels like a half-idea fleshed out into a four minute track. There’s more than a few songs like this on the album and from where I’m sitting, they might have combined some of these half-ideas into stronger, more recognizable songs. Again, look to “Rusty Cage” for guidance. It’s essentially two different songs sandwiched together, but what a tasty meal it manages to be. Especially compared to mono-flavored afterthoughts like “Kickstand” or “Half.”
But while a certain portion of the album underwhelms like never before there’s some unmistakable quality here in the jammier Soundgarden stuff that, while second to their metal roots, is necessary to balance out their heavier side. “Head Down” and “Limo Wreck” are a good addition to the band’s spookier side, while the title track is a bit more inclined towards rocking out, essential weirdness in tow. With the exception of Rush, I can’t think of a more popular band that so flagrantly ornaments their tracks. 7/4 and stranger grooves are so common as to be anticipated, even in heavy hitters like “The Day I Tried to Live,” and most of their songs integrate something exotic, be it in rhythm, melody, harmony, or timbre. Some tracks just seem to have been favored more than others. Clearly, intense scrutiny was used in crafting “Limo Wreck” and “Like Suicide” and it shows in their sublime balance of ideas. Compared to these, tracks like “Spoonman” and “My Wave” come off as lazily strung together.
Of course, we couldn’t possibly review this album honestly without admitting that, buried deep beneath the molten grunge and hard alternative tendencies that engulf the surface of Superunknown, a core of solid, unmistakable metal is exposed. The slow and doomy “Mailman” is a favorite of mine: a sweet combination of unpredictable percussive accents, Cornell’s mesmerizing vocal line in the verse, and those lumbering riffs! Pure Pentagram worship presented in a novel way and a great place to hear how good Chris’ voice sounds when he lays off the blasted distortion box, all in one. Everybody with a modicum of good taste seems to recognize that “4th Of July” is also a career highlight for these guys. Many so-called ‘true metal’ bands have failed to achieve the same smoldering, primordial sludge that fucking Soundgarden, “that grunge band,” so effortlessly obtain here. But if you’ve been keeping score, these two plus the handful of serene numbers from the last paragraph only amount to about half of the album’s playtime, the rest isn’t nearly as titillating.
If anyone out there still isn’t getting where I’m coming from, I’m not faulting the musicianship here. What I’m faulting is the songwriting and the “quantity over quality” presentation which always, always fails in musical matters. Superficially accessible in some parts, unfocused and boring in others, a trimmed and reorganized version of this could’ve potentially been the grunge-defying masterwork so many seem to laud it as. As so, it’s simply the first step in a speedy descent that resulted in the band folding a mere three years after this “pinnacle for its time.” Or so I’ve read.