By March 8th 1994, grunge, as a mainstream sensation, had little over a year and a half of commercial success left in its grimy fuel tanks. Kurt was gone, the flannel was fading, and somewhere No Doubt were recording their breakthrough album Tragic Kingdom, the album that would usher in the ska-swing mainstream sensation. It was a sensation that would last a few years and then the record labels would move on to electronica (Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, and The Crystal Method) in search of the next “new rock revolution” that they could get on the ground floor of. When neither of these semi-organic genre explosions panned out, it was decided that the best way to capture the revenues from a new mainstream sensation was to just make one up for the masses, and the national music scene quickly devolved from thoughtful, introspective, and often activism fueled organic rock, to...Britney Spears.
A truly organic music movement that flourished on its own merits, much like grunge did, has to come up from the dirty underground. Soundgarden, until their 1991 release Badmotorfinger, were pretty much still germinating in said dirty underground. Badmotorfinger catapulted them to regular airplay on mainstream radio and heavy MTV rotation (back when MTV actually played videos. Oh, 120 Minutes how missed thou art still). Finally able to feel the warm sun of mainstream success on their faces, Soundgarden now found themselves in a position where much more was expected of them. Major label record deals demand the delivery of major records. The kind of major records that can reach the masses. Some said this caused Soundgarden to sell out and drastically change their sound so that it had a wider mass appeal. Hence, 1994’s Superunknown is considered by many hard nosed Gen Xers to be Soundgarden’s sell out album. (Sadly, these opinions still thrive amongst the now culturally ignored Gen X crowd). Soundgarden did something unique with Superunknown though. Yes, they made a record that had wider appeal, essentially in the classic rock sound sense, but they also stayed true to their grungy roots and turned the tables on the warm mainstream sun and created one hell of a black-hole of a record.
Much of the grunge era’s music was, if not dark, definitely pensive. It was music that made you think, and Superunknown was nothing if not a thoughtful album. Chris Cornell penned lyrics about topics as diverse as stifling relationships (“Drown Me”) to depressing periods (“Fell On Black Days”) to self loathing (“Like Suicide”) to moments of breakthrough elation (“Spoonman”) to the battle for personal and/or political individuality and identity (“Superunknown”,“My Wave”). Many of the songs listed above made it to regular airplay...on Top 40 radio no less. How often now do you hear a well written (musically and lyrically) treatise on coping with life in the post-modern world where you wish a black hole sun would “wash away the rain,” since the everyday sun seems to weak to do so anymore? No, now we are lulled into the fitful sleep of “hey, you’re okay, we’re okay, and the world’s okay so let’s PAAARTAAY! (or SCREW!)” music (or at least those foolish enough to still listen to Top 40 radio are).
Speaking of psychedelic suns (black hole ones or otherwise), the only real difference between the sound of Superunknown and Badmotorfinger was the influence of some good ole’ 1970s stoner rock psychedelica (and some cleaner production values). Extended breaks in “Spoonman” where the song’s real life inspiration (and street performance artist), Artis the Spoonman, worked his magic, added some much needed elevation to the glorious onslaught of dropped-D madness. Soundgarden often slaved their sonic aspirations to constant drone, and psychedelica did raise its head in tracks like “Searching With My Good Eye Closed,” on Badmotorfinger, but the ethereal drone that was “Head Down” was pretty much unheard of in Soundgarden’s repertoire until Superunknown.
Perhaps most powerfully, and importantly, the sound of Superunknown elevated Soundgarden to true parity with the great stoner rock bands of the 1970s like Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, Sir Lord Baltimore, and Leaf Hound. There is a timelessness to the above mentioned bands’ sound. Production values aside, Black Sabbath sounds just as fresh at 40 as Superunknown does at 20. I suspect that they will still sound fresh when Black Sabbath is 60 and Superunknown is 40. So while we have lived a full 20 years of Superunknown, for the listener just now discovering this album, Superunknown is only moments old. Just as it is for the long term admirer for whom the album magically still sounds only moments old every time they replay it. Therein rests the hallmark of a great album.
Superunknown is slated for a major deluxe edition release on June 3rd 2014. Also, NIN (another group celebrating the 20th anniversary of their defining work this year) and Soundgarden will co-headline a tour this year.