At a time when fellow Seattle rock bands Nirvana and Pearl Jam have made major commercial inroads, releasing critically-acclaimed albums that increased their profile while staying true to their sonic roots, Soundgarden have matched them with Superunknown, the group’s strongest CD to date. Running over 70 minutes long, this sprawling, stylistically adventurous record improves on past strengths while demonstrating the quartet’s previously untapped potential.
Hard Rock Mixed With Experimentation
On earlier efforts, such as 1991’s Badmotorfinger, Soundgarden revealed a mastery of metal and hard rock conventions with their heavier-than-heavy riffs and powerful rhythm section. Those qualities haven’t subsided on Superunknown – if anything, the band has upped the ante in those regards – but what emerges on this new album is an ability to incorporate the basics of rock music while branching out into other genres. Superunknown dabbles in power ballads, psychedelic undertones and vaguely Middle Eastern instrumentation, and yet the record feels cohesive instead of a jumble of disparate ideas.
A Great Set of Songs
Beyond the analytical dissection of the different styles being incorporated, though, Superunknown simply sounds amazing. Aided by co-producer Michael Beinhorn, the songs have an epic scope that recalls the massiveness of Led Zeppelin’s best material. Although singer Chris Cornell wrote most of the tracks, he receives significant contributions from the other members: drummer Matt Cameron, bassist Ben Shepherd and guitarist Kim Thayil. As a band, they’ve never sounded tighter, whether powering through the tangled angst of “Mailman” or negotiating the trippy left turns of the experimental “Head Down.” Even when tracks push the six-minute mark, the tunes never feel indulgent, as even lengthy numbers such as “Like Suicide” don’t contain an ounce of fat.
Disturbing Characters and Depressed Souls
As the band’s lyricist, Cornell has always explored the darker aspects of human nature, but he tops himself with Superunknown’s litany of disturbing characters and depressed souls. “Mailman” chronicles the life of a meek, frustrated nobody who could turn homicidal at any moment. “The Day I Tried to Live” satirizes people’s feeble attempts to improve themselves in the face of life’s crushing monotony and cynicism. Elsewhere, the album features several scenes of impending doom, whether real or imagined, creating an atmosphere of dread that rarely lets up.
Cornell's Power as a Frontman
Interestingly though, the album is hardly a bleak listening experience. Part of this is due to the high level of craftsmanship, but it’s also a credit to the power of Cornell’s presence at the album’s center. From the beginning of Soundgarden’s career, his singing has stood out, expressing rage and uncertainty with equal aplomb. But his menacing growl of a voice finds new dimensions on Superunknown, as Cornell practically croons on the hypnotic ballad “Black Hole Sun” and skillfully travels up and down his impressive register on the punchy “My Wave.” No matter the isolation he and his fictional characters feel, Cornell projects such an image of strength that Superunknown becomes a statement of survival. Odd as it may be to say, despite the album’s heart of darkness, this is one exhilarating record.
Release date – March 8, 1994