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The downside of looking up. - 17%

hells_unicorn, June 6th, 2019
Written based on this version: 1996, CD, A&M Records (Digipak)

Adapting to a changing musical landscape can be a daunting task for any band, even if the landscape in question is one that the band in question helped to create. In the context of the media-created Seattle craze that emerged in the early 90s, opinions vary as to when it actually began to turn from a haggard wailer into a decaying corpse; the earliest being in late 1992 when Kurt Cobain was observed toting a t-shirt reading "Grunge is dead", while others would point to his April 1994 death as the key turning point in grunge's relatively short lifespan. But regardless of where this process began, it was pretty clear that by 1996 that the commercial hegemony of the ascendant post-grunge scene was underway, with the likes of Bush, Silverchair, Collective Soul and Live putting out highly successful albums the preceding year and the fall from prominence of Pearl Jam due to touring issues and Alice In Chains due to Layne Staley's heroin addiction. For that depressing conclave of purists who were bummed out by how commercialized their music had become, and gloriously oblivious to the groundwork for it being laid years prior, it seemed like Soundgarden would be their last hope, though ironically enough their watered down, lighter sounding stylistic departure in 1994's Superunknown shared a fair deal of responsibility for the rock paradigm being what it was during the early post-grunge period.

Naturally hindsight is always 20/20, but in light of the direction things were going, one would be hoping against hope if the expectation was for Soundgarden to revert back to their Badmotorfinger sound in a last ditch attempt at flipping the script. Indeed, despite the fact that this Seattle four-piece decided to go it alone and self-produce what would be their fifth studio album (or perhaps partially because of it), Cornell and company had it in mind to try and repeat the commercial success of Superunknown by drifting even closer to the post-grunge mindset, tossing out just about every semblance of aggression, heaviness and raw energy in the process. As such, Down On The Upside could be construed as a cynical exercise in trend-hopping, embracing the less abrasive and safer sound exuded by the likes of Live and Collective Soul, and stripping almost all of the metal out of their formula. The only voice of dissent in this paradigm shift was Kim Thayil, who's choppy, neurotic lead guitars still emits that raw, organic rage that originally defined this band's sound, and also who's lone offering to this album in the songwriting department "Never The Machine Forever" stands as the only riff-oriented, dark and forbidding song to grace this otherwise plodding, gelded collection of middle weight rock.

When moving past the remnant moments of integrity on this album, which are sparsely placed, what is left is a meandering shell of a once respectable band that predicts both Chris Cornell's infamous future project Audioslave and his pop-obsessed solo career. Semi-dreary yet overly polished and smooth offerings such as "Pretty Noose" and "Rhinosaur" almost sound like parody versions of the more rocking singles that came from the Superunknown album, while borderline easy-listening songs such as "Dusty" and power ballad "Blow Up The Outside" exhibit that limp, hybrid acoustic and electric guitar sound that would become a staple of later 90s post-grunge. About the only thing that this album lacks to fully morph it into outright post-grunge fodder is the lack of any overtly pop-oriented hooks, though the album's biggest hit single "Burden In My Hand" arguably crosses that threshold completely with its punishingly repetitive acoustic lines and droning, semi-yelled vocals. What remains of this album largely finds itself in similarly plodding and unexciting territory, save the two punk-infused up tempo anthems provided by bassist Ben Shepherd "Ty Cobb" and "Never Named", which sound more like pop punk joke songs, the former trying to hide behind a goofy dueling mandolin gimmick between himself and Cornell that only further solidifies its comical character.

The ultimate downfall of this album is that it's a sad middle ground between being raging and being jolly, and the fact that Cornell wrote the music and words to most of the hits betrays a shifting power dynamic that ultimately caused the band to self-destruct a year later. It's almost impossible to reconcile the still generally angst-driven and discontented lyrics with the light and happy music that surrounds them. It's a sad testament to a band that began as a pioneer that broke new interesting metallic ground in the late 80s, only to end up fading away with a whimper as the entire concept of their initial musical rebellion was turned on its head. The bitter irony is that despite being a far safer album that was definitely palatable to the popular sentiments of the time, Down On The Upside didn't even sell a quarter the amount of units as its predecessor did, likely the inevitable consequence of alienating their core fan base while trying to curry favor with the same crowd that ate up Throwing Copper and Jagged Little Pill. Whatever initial success it had could likely be chalked up to a remnant viability in the Soundgarden name, and it deserves to be either forgotten or panned as a forerunner to Chris Cornell's solo career by anyone who thinks that rock or metal is more than a few catchy hooks and an occasionally flashy guitar solo.

Experimental/Alt Rock? - 76%

Insin, April 27th, 2015

Often considered to be a disappointing follow-up to the highly acclaimed Superunknown, Down on the Upside is disregarded within Soundgarden’s discography. It was their last album before their breakup in 1997, and the struggle for control over their musical direction shows through into the album (not that this messes with their ever-present time signature trickery).

If Superunknown was a departure from metal, Down on the Upside is even tamer, more mainstream, and less heavy. Most of it has a strong alternative rock feel, even more so than on Superunknown, except for the occasional more experimental songs (see Applebite). The only song on here that could pass for metal is Never the Machine Forever (Kim Thayil’s sole writing credit – not a coincidence). The band focused less on quality (while this still exists) and more on quantity, writing sixteen songs for 65 minutes. A drop in quality occurs after Burden in My Hand, easily the best song on the album: an upbeat, bouncier piece with oddly dark lyrics. If you haven’t been enjoying yourself prior to that point, you might as well turn off the album.

After all, DOTU could do with some trimming. Towards the end, it becomes almost a chore to listen to, with mediocre song after mediocre song. Some of these would have been better off as B-sides, and Soundgarden would have released a shorter but improved version of Down on the Upside.

Soundgarden emphasizes a lot of different sounds and styles on this release. Just to name a few, we have punk, experimental, and even a mandolin-based song, and a variety of moods, from mellow tracks to upbeat pieces to the enraged chorus of Ty Cobb. Variety improves an album, and DOTU has it, but none of these songs straying from the band’s characteristic sound are really good or standouts; they’re somehow lacking much appeal, generic and unoriginal, but passable. And then there are the more typical Soundgarden tracks: Pretty Noose, Rhinosaur, Burden in My Hand, and the lyrically depressing Blow Up the Outside World. While they’re not the heavier type of songs found in the band’s first three albums, they still carry some of the trademark sound, only in an alt rock style. Unsurprisingly, the songs from the latter category tend to stand out as highlights. This incoherence of the album reveals the disjointedness of the band that would contribute to their breakup shortly after DOTU’s release.

There’s no bad song on the album, but some of them are just kind of… there. A sense of inconsistency plagues Down on the Upside, but it’s not one that ruins the entire album or deems it unlistenable, by any means. The highlights, Burden in My Hand especially, are definitely worth listening for any fan; the rest can be missed. If you’re new to Soundgarden, the best place to start would be with Badmotorfinger or Superunknown, to hear the band at its peak.

More of a Downside, Really - 55%

DawnoftheShred, March 16th, 2009

Contrary to most of the bands whose discographies I review, I’m going to start at the end of Soundgarden’s career. The reason for this is pretty simple: their indie debut has eluded me at record stores and I’m too much of a cheapskate to go through the Ebay route. As such, the reverse order is more appropriate while I continue looking for Ultramega OK. So then, onto the review.

Despite having spent the better part of a decade crafting that surly, sludgy sort of post-metal that the mainstream media would dub “grunge,” Soundgarden certainly have enjoyed a fair reputation among the truer metalheads for their dense and often inaccessible take on the sound that destroyed metal’s popularity. That is, until 1994’s landmark Superunknown launched them into superstardom. Most people, unwilling and afraid to part with fame after having acquired the taste, will make compromises in order to get the most out of their fifteen minutes. In Soundgarden’s case, they would follow the route of many of their peers by rounding out any sharp edges of their sound that might interfere with commercial viability. The resulting sound has less in common with metal and much more in common with hard alternative rock bands like The Toadies and Spacehog and it is precisely this sound that emerges on Soundgarden’s fifth and final album, Down on the Upside.

Unlike the songs from the band’s brash, noise-indoctrinated past, much of the material present on Down on the Upside seems catered to their audience. There’s still some vintage Soundgarden in here, but rather than appearing in its raw form, it’s funneled into something a bit more radio-friendly. But just like a teenage boy wearing a suit he’s outgrown, it clearly doesn’t fit. While their early material reveled in harmonic discord, Down on the Upside enjoys baser melodies. Now there’s still depth to the music: Soundgarden excels at creating dense layers of sound with minimal instrumentation (at times reminiscent of 90’s King’s X) and taking full advantage of stereo sound. The songs avoid the cut-and-paste quality of your Nirvana types by adding more guitar and bass (and occasionally vocal) layers to later verses and extended bridges. “Pretty Noose,” one of a handful of radio hits, is a pretty good example of Soundgarden’s ability to take a simple sort of song and really run with it: by song’s end you feel like you’ve listened to something much more substantial than what has actually just played. The band grooves pretty well too. Matt Cameron’s beats defy tradition, keeping with the exotic vibe that often permeates a Soundgarden record. However on this album, that vibe is disconcertedly upbeat. The rebellious spirit of past albums is rarely channeled here and when it is, it’s forced (see: “Ty Cobb.” Hard-headed fuck you all indeed!). No, most of the time singer Chris Cornell is trading his raging wail for an Eddie Vedder-ish croon and Kim Thayil and Ben Shephard trade their dissonance for alt/rock melodicism. The new style is decently executed by the band, but honestly, it’s the same kind of thing that the Smashing Pumpkins were much better suited for. Call me a pantywaist if you must, but I’d take Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness over this album any day. Because even with the hefty handful of crap that’s contained on that album, it’s still has more quality per volume than this flaccid attempt at 90’s radio-rock. Listen to a track like “Zero Chance” and hear the foundation of a Creed ballad. Other songs speak of Queens of the Stone Age. Meh.

So as far as songs worth saving, “Pretty Noose” tops my list. “Blow Up the Outside World” was one of the other hits from this release and it’s pretty good for one of the mellower numbers. Kim Thayil’s leadwork resembles Jerry Cantrell’s at times (the master of grunge leadwork), but it still feels too sunshine-y for Soundgarden. The other hit, “Burden in my Hand,” is pretty upbeat too. It’s odd really, because despite the positive melodic nature of some of these songs, the lyrics are usually still pessimistic. Anyway that track is alright despite its small-town, Counting Crows feel. Finally, “Applebite” manages to at least be unsettling, while “Never the Machine Forever” serves as the heaviest track. Everything after that (the last several songs on the album especially) succeeds only in being boring.

It’s really not a bad album. But it offers little in replay value and, because of its length, becomes positively exhausting by the end. After this album, Chris Cornell would meet up with former Rage Against the Machine members to form the thankfully ill-fated Audioslave and than later attempt a solo career built from pop and electronica. In light of these events, I guess this was an upside after all. But in regards to Soundgarden's work, it's basically their worst. Though to be fair, I still haven't heard that debut...

Not Essential, but not bad - 75%

erickg13, July 30th, 2006

Down on the Upside, Soundgarden's final album, lives in the shadow of Superunknown which makes it overlooked by most. It is by no means close to Superunknown, it feels rushed and crammed. Overall it seems like the band took one step backwards. The riffing imitates Superunknown, and is much less original. Chris's vocal work is on the downside, it is calm but not angry or tense like on Superunknown. Kims guitar work seems bogged down, no more memorable riffs like "Outshined" or "Black Hole Sun". Ben seems disconnected from the rest of the band and his bass work isnt anything special. Matt sounds good on drums but that too varies from song to song.

Im a big Soundgarden fan and they made such little material that all I can ask for is more, but Down on the Upside NEEDS to be trimmed. Superunknown felt like huge operatic piece, this just feels plodding and slow. Some highlights though are songs such as "Pretty Noose", "Ty Cobb", "Blow Up the Outside World" and "Burden In My Hand". These 4 are just about the closest you get to great songs on this album. "Pretty Noose" is a giant menacing heavy song about suicide, as is "Blow Up the Outside World". "Ty Cobb" is a great punk/head bang with the chorus of "Hard headed fuck you all". "Burden In My Hand" is a sad, acoustic-y song about killing people. Most of the rest of the songs are just average.

Overall I would say if you have it keep it, if you are into Soundgarden and you dont have it, get it, and if your just getting into Soundgarden check out BadMotorFinger, Superunknown or A-Sides (which features some of the highlights from this album).