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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.