Wednesday, January 23, 2008

No. 336: Superunknown

Band: Soundgarden
Album: Superunknown
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Robert Christgau calls it "This is easily the best--the most galvanizing, kinetic, sensational, catchy--Zep rip in history." I don't totally agree; Soundgarden's metal is harder-edged and Cornell's voice is more melodic and less animal-like. Yes, I prefer Soundgarden to Zeppelin.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I'd like to see this one higher.
Best song: The album doesn't have many bad songs on it, though I'd say "Fell on Black Days," "The Day I Tried to Live" and "My Wave" are the best.
Worst song: "Like Suicide" and "Fresh Tendrils" are good songs, but not on the level of the other songs.
Is it awesome?: No doubt about it. Absolutely. It's a great, great album.

In late 1993/early 1994, the three grunge powerhouses released albums. Each could be considered each band's best work. Certainly, "Vs." is my favorite Pearl Jam album. "In Utero" is an awesome Nirvana album, though you'd be hard pressed to argue any of the three Nirvana albums are better than the others.

Certainly, "Superunknown" is Soundgarden's best work. I still hold that Chris Cornell's voice is the best in the history of rock and Kim Thayil's wacky tunings and time signatures make for nothing if not interesting metal.

The album is the band at its most mature. While Thayil almost entirely relied on the Black Sabbath/Black Flag dictum (Sub Pop Records' mantra) on the band's first albums, "Superunknown" is equally influenced by Eastern sounds, specifically, the Beatles' work with Eastern music:

We looked deep down inside the very core of our souls and there was a little Ringo sitting there. Oh sure, we like telling people it's John Lennon or George Harrison; but when you really look deep inside of Soundgarden, there's a little Ringo wanting to get out.

"Half" takes influences from Indian music, while "Black Hole Sun" and "Head Down" both sound Beatles-esque. "Kickstand" is more punk rock than other tracksm, while "Like Suicide" meanders. "Spoonman" features a slidey guitar riff and a spoon solo by a Seattle street musician.

"Fell on Black Days" might be the album's highlight. Being that the record came out a month before Kurt Cobain's suicide, a song about depression sounds oddly prescient, but it's as morose and beautiful as an Emily Dickinson poem.

The band is remarkably tight on the album. No song meanders too much ("Like Suicide" aside) and Thayil's guitar work is at its most interesting. The hard riffs and weird time signatures of "My Wave" just backs up Thayil's ability to fuck with guitar tuning like no one other than Keith Richards.


It saddens me that Soundgarden is left out of the conversation when people speak the praises of bands like Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam remains because, well, no one has told them forcibly enough to stop making mediocre Neil Young ripoffs. Soundgarden was better than those bands and was much more distinctive in style. Pearl Jam copped whatever classic rock band was popular; Soundgarden masterfully crafted metal in the image of the greats while still continuing to feel the punk rock of Black Flag and Flipper. It's no small feat.


Again, I am having trouble actually explaining how great this album is. It, like "Meat Puppets II," Isis' "Panopticon," "Revolver," Elliott Smith's "Either/Or," Neil Young's "Harvest" and a few others as albums I can enjoy in their entirety. No skipping songs, no fast forwarding. It's that good.

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