The Long and Complicated History of the Superunknown

A quick look at the history of Soundgarden's Superunknown in celebration of the twenty-first anniversary of its release

This March, Seattle luminaries Soundgarden celebrated the twenty-first anniversary of the release of their landmark album, Superunknown – the last album released by any Grunge band before the death of the scene’s most notable figure, Kurt Cobain, in April 1994. Superunknown was perhaps the most important album in Soundgarden’s discography; not only was it massively successful (eventually being included in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time), but it also marked the beginning of the end of Soundgarden as a band in the 1990s.

Of course, when discussing Grunge it’s all too often that Nirvana becomes the subject of the conversation, like trying to talk about smartphones without discussing iPhones. It’s understandable, of course: Nirvana were the biggest band in the world at that time. But that wasn’t always the case. For a long time, Nirvana wasn’t even the biggest band in Seattle. That honour belonged to Soundgarden.

During the late 1980s, Nirvana was little more than a garage/Melvins cover band that occasionally got together to play charity shows for beer money, and the Seattle scene was lauded over by the indie label Sub Pop and its bands: Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, and Soundgarden. The sound of these bands was noticeably rougher than what would come later. Mudhoney was primarily a punk band with a fuzz pedal, for example, and Mother Love Bone was like a harder Guns N’ Roses. Though these bands met with success, they never had the success of the latter bands. Eventually Mother Love Bone dissolved following the death of their lead singer, Andrew Wood, and its members went on to form Pearl Jam, while Mudhoney continued to this day, albeit never achieving the commercial success of their later peers.

In this scene that was made up of Riot Grrls, Metalheads, and hardcore punks, Soundgarden’s mix of Led Zeppelin inspired wailing, Black Sabbath-like riffs and punk sensibility seemed like a melting pot that everyone could enjoy, and their relatively consistent lineup meant a stability that appealed to more mainstream labels. Ultimately, Soundgarden ended up being the first band from the Grunge scene to sign to a major label when they signed with A&M Records, who would later release Soundgarden’s Louder than Love (1989) and Badmotorfinger (1991).  Soundgarden’s next album, Superunknown (1994) came at a pivotal time in the Grunge era, albeit only in retrospect, because (as previously mentioned) it would end up being the last album before Grunge broke.

But to say that Superunknown is ‘just’ a Grunge album is to do it great injustice. Not only is there no such thing as ‘just a Grunge album’ (because the scene had no set sound and, therefore, no sense of normality), but also Superunknown shows a marked experimentation in its composition, far beyond what most of Soundgarden’s peers had attempted up to that time. Although Alice in Chains had attempted acoustic music in Jar of Flies (1994) and Pearl Jam had stripped away their harder influences for Vs (1993), neither had embraced their experimentation to this extent. Superunknown shows clear and overarching influence from Psychedelia (especially latter era Beatles), Middle Eastern music and the poetry of Sylvia Plath.

And yet, while Soundgarden were clearly being experimental when composing the album, there’s introspection too. Take ‘Spoonman’, for example. One of the album’s singles, ‘Spoonman’ had originally appeared in the soundtrack of the 1992 Cameron Crowe film Singles (1992) and was named for Artis the Spoonman – a Seattle street musician. It’s as Grunge as ripped jeans and flannel. With its septuple meter and drop D tuning, ‘Spoonman” is classic Soundgarden. Yet, you only have to take a casual look at the lyrics to see that the band were moving away from the snark territory of much of their earlier work towards something much more introspective and philosophic; when speaking to Request Magazine in 1994, Cornell said of the song:

It’s more about the paradox of who [Artis] is and what people perceive him as. He’s a street musician, but when he’s playing on the street, he is given a value and judged completely wrong by someone else. They think he’s a street person, or he’s doing this because he can’t hold down a regular job. They put him a few pegs down on the social ladder because of how they perceive someone who dresses differently. The lyrics express the sentiment that I much more easily identify with someone like Artis than I would watch him play.

At the other end of the spectrum is ‘Black Hole Sun’, a song so removed from Soundgarden’s usual oeuvre that one has to wonder if it was written during the sessions for Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), lost for thirty years and then discovered by the members of Soundgarden one day while going through attics in England. Instead of the heavy riffing that had made the band a big name in the Seattle scene, ‘Black Hole Sun’ makes use of a series of guitar arpeggios and effects pedals to give the song its unique sound. Its lyrics, which make as much sense as a pastor feeding a lamb from a child’s milk bottle while a black hole swallows the Earth, reject the philosophic rumination of Superunknown, instead opting for a feeling of general malaise. And quite appropriately, the music video for ‘Black Hole Sun’ features a pastor feeding a lamb from a child’s milk bottle while a black hole swallows the Earth. If Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was the Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) of music videos, then ‘Black Hole Sun’ was its Twin Peaks (1990).

This musical experimentation brought great success (both the mentioned songs received Grammy Nominations) and accolades to Soundgarden, but it also meant discontent. This new sound was championed by Cornell, but other members of the band felt conflicted. While experimentation was bringing more critical and commercial success, it also meant that they were abandoning the sound that had first won them attention and respect amongst their home scene. Soundgarden’s next album, 1996’s Down on the Upside, would be written almost entirely by Cornell and featured even more experimentation, but it would also be their last.

The tours that came from Down on the Upside were tumultuous, to say the least. During their first Lollapalooza tour with Metallica, the members took separate flights and only met when it was time to play. Their own worldwide tour was criticized for its lack of energy. At the tour’s final stop in Honolulu, Hawaii on February 9, 1997, Ben Shepherd threw his bass into the air in frustration after suffering equipment failure and then stormed off the stage. The band retreated and the show was temporarily halted, with Cornell returning to conclude the show with a solo encore. A short time later, on April 9, 1997, Soundgarden announced it was disbanding.

In the following years, Matt Cameron (Drums) became the drummer for Pearl Jam and found resounding success. Kim Thayil (Lead Guitar) joined the punk band NO WTO COMBO with Jello Biafra, played with The Presidents of the United States of America, Sunn O))) and Boris. Shepherd (Bass) played in The Desert Sessions and several of Mark Lanegan’s projects before quitting music altogether to become a carpenter’s assistant. Cornell, meanwhile, continued to court massive commercial success with his solo albums Euphoria Morning (1999), Carry On (2007) and Scream (2009), as well as with Audioslave, the band he founded with members of the disbanded Rage Against the Machine. In 2006, he performed the theme song to Casino Royale (2006), the reboot to the James Bond franchise. What’s more, a generation of bands influenced by Soundgarden, such as Scotland’s Biffy Clyro, New Jersey’s Dillinger Escape Plan and Canada’s Nickelback, began to reach prominence in the world of rock music.

(I was surprised at Nickelback too).

For over twelve years, Soundgarden remained silent on the subject of a reunion until January 1, 2010, when, following the breakup of Audioslave three years earlier due to “irresolvable personality conflicts as well as musical differences,” Cornell announced through his twitter that:

“The 12-year break is over and school is back in session. Sign up now. Knights of the Soundtable ride again!”

Soundgarden reunited in 2010. Their first release since following their reunion was ‘Live to Rise’, a song for the Avengers Assemble (2012) soundtrack, which was described by USA Today as “The Incredible Hulk” of the “all-star soundtrack.” Shortly after ‘Live to Rise’, Soundgarden released King Animal (2012), their sixth studio album, which was met by universal praise and favourable reviews, cementing Soundgarden’s reputation as a band still relevant in a world far removed from the Seattle scene that they had sprung from so long ago.

Why should you care that Superunknown (1994) is 21?

Because, not only is it a highly experimental and creative effort, something that stood out in a crowd of mavericks, but also because of its importance to the history of modern rock music; it was the swan song of an era that is still influential to this day – for good and for ill (I’m looking at you, Nickelback). More importantly, Superunknown is an album that is still unique, and powerful, and good, even in today’s diverse musical landscape.

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