Between Kim Thayil’s Sabbath-style hypnoriffs and Chris Cornell’s keening, Robert Plant-like tenor, Soundgarden are generally written off by alternative fans as just a smarter-than-average metal band. After all, how much was there to “Rusty Cage” or “Outshined” beyond dark, sludgy and tricky Zeppélinesque time changes?
Quite a bit, actually. But it’s been easy to miss the subtler aspects of Soundgarden in the din of their sledgehammer instrumental attack. As a result, Super-unknown will likely come as a shock to a lot of people — and not just because it offers more than heavy guitars and vocal heroics. For all the aural excitement provided by the surfer psychedelia of “My Wave” or the Beatlesque balladry of “Black Hole Sun,” the album’s real thrills have more to do with emotional content than stylistic flourishes. At its best, Super-unknown offers a more harrowing depiction of alienation and despair than anything on In Utero.
Take “Mailman,” for example. At first glance, this seems to be just another psychokiller number, with Cornell moaning lines like “I’m the dirt beneath your feet/The most important fool you forgot to see” as overdriven guitars tick ominously behind him. But rather than build to the expected payoff, the song focuses instead on the inchoate menace of its protagonist’s threats and promises, a device made all the more unsettling by the sexual undercurrent implicit in Cornell’s delivery of the chorus: “I know I’m headed for the bottom/But I’m riding you all the way.” It’s a genuinely scary performance, in large part because it doesn’t offer the listener any release; by the song’s end, we’re still trapped in its vortex of malice and intimidation.
Soundgarden seem to glory in this method-acting approach to songwriting, happily accepting the contradictions within each character’s view. Just look at how easily “My Wave” moves from the libertarian sentiments of the verse to the aggressive territoriality of the song’s “keep it off my wave” chorus, presenting the view that doing your own thing is fine so long as you do it elsewhere. Yet rather than point up the fallacy in the protagonist’s thinking, the music backs him up, shifting from a stuttering, jackhammer syncopation on the verse to an almost blissful psychedelic groove on the chorus. This, in other words, is the world as seen by the surfer; any attempt to impose a moral upon it is left entirely to the listener.
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In a lesser band’s hands, that approach could easily turn into an aesthetic copout, much as some gangsta rappers try to excuse the blood lust in their music by calling it “reporting.” But Soundgarden aren’t interested in making moral judgements so much as conveying a sense of the feelings at play in these songs, be they as simple as the idiot bliss bubbling through the infectious rhythms of “Spoonman” or as complex and consuming as the abject despair described in the mournful cadences of “Fell on Black Days.” And more than anything else, it’s that ability to evoke the emotional life beneath these melodies that keeps the group from coming across as just another heavy-guitar act.
Not that there’s anything especially clichéd about the sound of Superunknown. Although the band serves up a healthy amount of metallic bluster, from the churning, drum-driven thump of “Let Me Drown” to the slow, surly grind of “Limo Wreck,” Soundgarden refuse to define themselves in strict headbanger terms. So instead of making the usual connection between heavy and metal, the band spins its sound in all sorts of unexpected directions, filling “4th of July” with enough sonic shrapnel and four-square riffage to bridge the gap between Live Skull and Black Sabbath and evoking everything from Captain Beefheart to Nirvana and Cream within the quirky confines of “Head Down.”
To be honest, however, the band’s adventurousness doesn’t always work to its advantage. With its yearning, Lennonesque melody and watery, Harrisonstyle guitar, “Black Hole Sun” is a wonderful exercise in Beatleisms; trouble is, it’s not a very good song, offering more in the way of mood and atmosphere than melodic direction. As for bassist Ben Shepherd’s swirling, discordant “Half,” suffice it to say that this song is the virtual definition of a B side.
On the whole, though, Superunknown not only hits more often than it misses, but it demonstrates far greater range than many bands manage in an entire career. And while that probably won’t be enough to place Soundgarden at the forefront of the alternative-rock scene, it ought to at least lift the band out of the metal ghetto to which it had been so unfairly consigned.