Reprinted without permission from the Fort Worth
Star-Telegram, May 24, 1996
SOUNDGARDEN: DOWN ON THE UPSIDE: GREAT SOUND, LOUSY LYRICS
After years of making mediocre records that were at once tinny and muddy, Soundgarden (on 1994's Superunknown and the just-released Down on the Upside) finally jelled as a unit in the studio. The result is that now they have a sound (Chris Cornell's powerful bellow atop buzzing, crisply crashing guitars and a rumbling bass-and-drums bottom) that is unique, instantly identifiable and reminiscent of the sort of earthy, no-frills, psychelelic-tinged metal of early Led Zeppelin.
And working in tandem with this sound are the lyrics, which are most often by Cornell and always have a pessimistic, angry, confrontational tone.
It's within the combination of this sound and viewpoint that the band becomes what thousands of disaffected but cynical kids want: Nihilism that comes across at the arena level. And in doing so, Soundgarden just may have finally transformed itself into the perfect '90s hard-rock band.
Musically, the 16-track, 65-minute Down is a near-total triumph: The artfully layered guitars and hard but lean crunch of songs such as "Ty Cobb" (perhaps the first punk song with mandolins), "Rhinosaur" and the six-minute-plus "Tighter & Tighter" (with obvious nods to Zeppelin songs such as "Out on the Tiles," "Dazed and Confused" and "Tangerine") have an easy command of a wide range of dynamics extremely rare in modern hard rock.
But then, of course, there's the message behind it all, and that's where Down stumbles. Badly. Cornell wrote they lyrics to all but one of the songs here and, as on past CDs, his shortcomings are quickly evident: He's both vague and grouchy.
Again and again, these songs boil down to a guy who professes to hate not only stardom but life in general: "Pretty Noose," "Zero Chance," "Blow up the Outside World," "Never Named" and many others display a one-note unfriendliness and disgust with the world in general that, over more than an hour, grows extremely tiresome. And when he's not raging that he'd like to either cut himself off from or, literally, blow-up the outside world, he's asking (as on "Never Named" and "Burden in my Hand") for our pity.
As a result, despite a number of very good songs (among them "Noose," "Tighter" and "Dusty") Down can't help but feel long-winded. Soundgarden is a great-sounding band, no question, but at their core they too often offer just a gray, static weariness of spirit.
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5