By 1994, grunge had hit its peak and began to decline in popularity. Bands like Pearl Jam had released material that divided its fanbase, refused to make any music videos, and were battling Ticketmaster over high prices. Nirvana released the brilliant-but-funereal “Unplugged in New York” as its swansong. Alice in Chains released the ingenious acoustic EP Jar of Flies, but frontman Layne Staley’s addictions severely limited the band’s outgoings. Pop punk, art metal, and neo-grunge were now rising in popularity. Kurt Cobain’s death unofficially signified the twilight of an all-too-brief world domination ruled by ingenious, sludgy riffs and flannel-wearing poets. However, the following summer, Soundgarden, who had not only seen it all, but had also SURVIVED the peak-and-burn of the scene, just happened to release their magnum opus. Welcome to the Superunknown….
Though the album is undeniably Soundgarden, a few key differences immediately set this release apart from both its predecessors and its successors. The album has a more subdued sound to it- not nearly as in-your-face as the ballsy art-metal of Badmotorfinger. Even the rockers have a more balanced edge to them, but that’s not to say that they’ve lost their power. Though the album is more tame at first listen, repeated listens reveal that Soundgarden have not lost their edge. Not by a long shot. If anything, Superunknown is darker and more personal than anything they had released up to this point in their career. Much of this is due to the crisp production, which keeps any single instrument from dominating the mix, instead concentrating on the aura of the band itself- bleak, gray, and wonderfully apocalyptic. Chris Cornell’s vocals are more ghostly and controlled than before, and while the riffs are still heavy, they help to keep the songs afloat instead of racing ahead of them or weighing them down. The atmosphere paints an existence that basks in the black sunshine of its own mortality. The music is borderline uncomfortable at times, but such dissonance adds to its genuine depression, as art. And if you read between the lines, you’ll find a hint of hope in the darkness…
The material is far more focused than on any other Soundgarden release, and arguably, than any other release by ANY Seattle band. Soundgarden have thrown their murky expositions out the window in favor of the more experimental elements that were merely hinted at in “Badmotorfinger.” Though Cornell’s compositions generally stand head-and-shoulders above the other members’ contributions, every song has its place in this album. The consistency is impeccable, and even the song titles blend well as a whole, as if belonging to some sort of grand, dank concept about the dissatisfaction of life. The album kicks off with the 4-note assault of “Let Me Drown,” a perfect opener to such an album. “My Wave” soon follows, beginning with a simple riff in a not-so-simple time signature. The chorus creates a sort of surfer-ambiance fused with heavy punk, and it’s catchy as hell. Next up, one of my favourite songs in the SG catalog: “Fell on Black Days.” This song slows the tempo a bit and possesses a waltzy, Eastern groove to it. Probably the best single on the album. Other standouts include the meditatively dissonant “Head Down,” the dreamy-but-dreary “Black Hole Sun,” the punk-metal of “Spoonman,” the desperation for escape inside “The Day I Tried To Live,” and the stunningly poetic (and extremely morose) “Like Suicide,” which is arguably the best song on the album. Although some tracks are more drawn-out than necessary (“Limo Wreck” sludges on a bit too long), each song feels like a piece of a puzzle. Each has its own character and purpose, if not immediate accessibility.
This is, arguably, Soundgarden at the height of their career. Each and every instrument is taken into account equally, every member sounds very comfortable, confident, and satisfied behind their instrument, and the album flows as smooth as butter melting into a scorching pan. This is possibly the best grunge album of all time, and without a doubt, the most focused and mature. If there is one grunge album you absolutely must buy, let Superunknown be it. You won’t be disappointed.
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