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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...