Reprinted without permission from New Musical Express,
May 18, 1996
DOWN ON THE UPSIDE
When their children ask what they did in the grunge cred wars of the early '90s, Soundgarden will claim that they were conscientious objectors. In truth though, they spent those years with their heads ducked behind Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Arse In Chains and several hundred Tools, Wools, Pools, Plods and Podgegrinders, dodging the kind of flak from 'corporate roc'-spitting purists that fatally stigmatised so many. Piece of piss, since they'd been around a couple of years longer than the rest, had the stamp of approval by formerly being on Sub Pop, and didn't sell too many records to be fashionable.
And yet, Soundgarden were probably never truly grunge. They tried, and are still trying, damn hard to be grunge; to endorse its style, attitudes and hip currency, while lacking the character, visceral impact and emotional depth that originally marked out the genre. Oh yes.
See, if the central characteristics of the grunge attitude were schizophrenic self-loathing, angst-laden self-pity and bored nihilism, then Soundgarden, on the evidence of 'Down On The Upside' at least, are fake grunge, played by a competent, but unremarkable heavy rock band.
Throughout this record the mood of dark, demon-wrestling introspection continually rings hollow. From the abstract torture imagery of the opening single, "Pretty Noose", to the fifth-form sulk sentiments of 'Blow Up The Outside World' ("Nothing seems to kill me, no matter how hard I try" - try a shotgun, you dick), it's all adolescent fantasies of angst, where in fact they don't know the meaning of the word. They're essentially bread-and-butter rockers, but prove some kind of '4 Real' point in a genre where you are only as great an artist if you're a 'f---ed up' artist, they're desperate to create some kind of existential void to inhabit. But the lack of gut-level resonance they create reveals all this as mere dark stylistics, the modern equivalent of a scary monster on an Iron-Maiden T-shirt.
For a start, Chris Cornell's generic, Vedder-esque deep-voiced whine just leaves you cold, betraying little real emotion behind the classy Marlboro metal croak. Meanwhile there's the 65 minutes of intense, often turgid rock stodge to plough through. It's all superficially well-crafted, a polished-mud sound decorated with such questionable affections as a mandolin (on a thrash metal track?, are you sure, sir?), Zep-esque folk tinges, and even a Moog at one point.
When Soundgarden get experimental on us, they can be fleetingly engaging, as on the Baby Bird (!) style lo-fi of 'Applebite', and the Stipean surrealism of 'Switch Opens'. And they can touch your heart when they sing from theirs, as on the atmospheric 'Tighter and Tighter', or the sharply poetic, anti-love song 'Burden In My Hand'. Elsewise, though, the tunes are workmanlike and unmemorable, the sentiments shallow, and after 65 long minutes the overall feeling is like having waded through an ocean of porridge. With no sugar.
This may well sell by the boatload across the globe, of course, but for most sharp British kiddies with a heavy heart, a sensitive soul and half a bullshit detector in their heads, Soundgarden will say nothing to you about your life. Or theirs, come to that. (3)