Superunknown (20th Anniversary)

Superunknown (20th Anniversary)

If 1991’s Badmotorfinger was the album on which Soundgarden distilled the aggressive aspects of their musical personality into one breathless record, Superunknown was the LP on which they expanded their horizons to explore more nuanced influences. Which isn’t to say the album is devoid of energy—witness the churning riff of “My Wave,” the raucous punk of “Kickstand,” and the pummeling rhythms of “Spoonman.” But such moments are tempered by the more subtle approach of “Like Suicide,” the downbeat “Fell On Black Days,” and the melancholy psychedelia of “Black Hole Sun.” The genesis of the album’s first single, “Spoonman,” can be traced back to the set of Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film Singles, in which Soundgarden lead singer Chris Cornell had a cameo as a member of fictional band Citizen Dick. Helping Crowe with set design was Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament (also a member of the made-up group), who designed a demo cassette for Citizen Dick complete with five imaginary song titles—one of which was “Spoonman.” Spotting the cover, Cornell decided to go home and write and record songs to accompany each title, committing “Spoonman” to tape with an acoustic guitar and banging pots and pans. Years later when Soundgarden started compiling songs for Superunknown, guitarist Kim Thayil said they should include that track. (Cornell is on record stating that though sonically the finished version is very different to his demo, the arrangement and lyrics are close.) Having experimented with more autobiographical lyrics on Badmotorfinger, Cornell continued down that route on Superunknown, with “4th of July” chronicling an acid trip, and “Fell On Black Days” his experiences with depression. The unlikely inspiration for “Like Suicide” came in the shape of a bird that flew into the window of his Seattle home, breaking its neck in the process. After putting the bird out of its misery, Cornell wrote the song in tribute to the creature. Recording sessions at Seattle’s Bad Animals Studio were reportedly fractious, with the band’s desire to record quickly at odds with producer Michael Beinhorn’s penchant for repeat takes and attention to detail. The final product, however, speaks for itself, masterfully capturing the quartet’s more refined songwriting without compromising their artistic expression (the seven-minute “Like Suicide,” the six-minute dirge of “Head Down”) and fondness for the esoteric (the psychedelic wig-out of “Half”). In the months leading up to the release of Superunknown, Seattle peers such as Pearl Jam (Vs), Nirvana (In Utero), and Alice In Chains (Jar of Flies) all debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Superunknown achieved the same feat and remains a landmark release—not only for the band, but for the alt-rock genre.

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