Reprinted without permission from Juice, June
SOUND(GARDEN) AS EVER
SOUNDGARDEN - Down On The Upside ****
Soundgarden has a reputation for being the metal band that it's okay for alternakids to like, with plenty of the band's detractors asserting that their early success had everything to do with location, location, location and little to do with subtlety, taste or ideas. And for all those who resented the full-blown, Sabbath-inspired power of their watershed Badmotorfinger album, there's little to disprove these theories on Down On The Upside. Your appreciation of the album will be governed by whether you think Soundgarden make metal with only a vague twist on the skulls and death imagery, or whether they hit the psychedelic heights to which they aspire.
Be they cosmic or comic, Soundgarden have certainly mellowed and improved since they defined 90s metal riffing with the folding turnarounds of "Outshined:, the frenetic, tense pace of "Rusty Cage" and "Jesus Christ Pose," and rock-out reworkings like "Drawing Flies". Superunknown was an entirely different album, poised and polished where once all was awash with reverb and the messy trademarks of metallic over-production. After working with sizemeister producer Terry Date on Badmotorfinger, they moved onto Michael Beinhorn for Superunknown. And while he removed the ludicrous emphasis on mass and space, he retained the perfection ideal. Here, on Down On The Upside, the band have produced themselves (with help from engineer Adam Kaspar), and while they maintain that they've aimed for a live feel as much as possible, the sound is still closest to Superunknown, albeit with fewer overdubs and an unerring musicianship guiding the grooves.
Vocalist and primary songwriter Chris Cornell continues his trademark lyrical bent, mixing the mystical and violent with a balls-out bravado that typifies American hard rock. The opening couplet exemplifies this, part darkly esoteric, part menacing, park Yankee "yeah!" - "I caught the moon today/Pick it up and throw it away/All right!" he sings before moving in for the hook: "Pretty noose is pretty hate/And I don't like where you got me hanging from." Keeping the stargasing grounded in some sense of urban reality is something Cornell struggles with, and manages for the most part. His tales of mythical and mystical proportions are brought home by lines that speak with the vocabulary of a street urchin, the violence intellectualised but still blunt. He's combining the pile-driving attack of metal with some sense of lyrical ingenuity, and however Gothic and grandiose in outlook the lyrics are, there's something in the ambiguous verses for everyone who can suspend disbelief enough to listen. And despite the fact that gambits like boosting the intensity of a song by upping the vocal melody as the song progresses (low melody first verse, higher in the second) are now old hat, Cornell has made the trick such a personal trademark that he's forgiven the predictability.
Like their metallic antecedents, Soundgarden have gone multi-platinum and made a mint on a ballad ("Black Hole Sun" from Superunknown helped them to their current success), but for all their immediacy they're far from Top 40. "Blow Up The Outside World" may be everything that "Black Hole Sun" was before it (proving that Chris Cornell's voice is still exceptional amongst a field of pretenders), but amidst the pop songs that catch the ear there are strange takes, like drummer matt Cameron's "Applebite" (full of eerie keyboards and indecipherable distorted vocals, it's so slow and dub-heavy it's near trip hop, and only just a failed experiment). Likewise "Never The Machine Forever," whose title gives an indication of the song's bamboozling chop/change structure and complex set of turnarounds. Like "Zero Chance," "Never The Machine Forever" creates the atmosphere of a dark Beatles ballad - the latter including a finicky, complex guitar line that moves into the tongue-twister modes usually reserved for virtuoso wankers and "world" musicians. Soundgarden - the line-up is completed by guitarist Kim Thayil, who takes songwriting credit on "Never The Machine Forever," and bassist Ben Sherpherd, who wrote "An Unkind" and added music to "Zero Chance," "Dusty," "Ty Cobb," and "Never Named" - know just how to stop on the rock side of technical exploration, a sense of understanding that allows them to excel but which also forces them at times to come close to pop music's precedent, as they move through clich=E9s and perfect pop progressions.
"Never Named" is top punk rock, with its loose feel and opening lines: "I had a dog/He was a mix/He loved me like a God/But I was just a kid/And I look like a man/But I feel like an ant." "Dusty" is an exceptional song which sounds like nothing Soundgarden has done before, a monotonal pop tune that demonstrates the changes the band has made - where once there was crass distortion there's now tone-perfect overdrive, weighed out by a classic tension/resolution passage and an outro that's almost roots rock. "Pretty Noose" matches Superunknown's "The Day I Tried To Live" for intensity and catchiness. "Ty Cobb" has a false start incorporating mandolin, mandola, piano and percussion which drops suddenly into a full-speed punk rocker, with its perfect pop reading of the tough rock chorus ("Hard headed fuck you all!" Cornell sings over double-time backing, his voice sweet and weighed out by harmonies). And while side two flounders at times, over 65 minutes and 16 songs there's enough variety on Down On The Upside to satisfy any fan.
As critics try to pin Soundgarden down with the over-used "grunge is dead" clause, these Seattle survivors have long since proved themselves an autonomous outfit that hasn't felt the need to bow to peer pressure. Soundgarden stands alone as a great band, without the aid of dark rock contemporaries or the junkie mystique tht enveloped greater Seattle at the city's height. Between the foursome there's the mix of true grit and musicianship necessary to create a genuine rock package. Ten years into their recording career, Soundgarden are still hitting their gargantuan stride.