Reprinted without permission from The New York Times,
May 19, 1996
CONSORTING WITH THE SNAKE
Since its inception, rock music has had the snake as its escort. The snake is slimy, sinuous and lowly. It can be the agent of a fall from grace, an all-purpose phallic symbol, a cheater and back stabber or the losing combination in a roll of the dice. Whatever form it takes, the snake is always very masculine and very wicked. And it is all over "Down on the Upside," the latest album from Soundgarden, the leaders of grunge's hard rock school. The album is not the first recording on which Soundgarden has walked with the snake -- "Get on the Snake" is one of the centerpieces of 1989's "Louder Than Love." Nor does "Down on the Upside" represent the best use to which Soundgarden has put the snake; the honor goes to the line about the snake being in the singer Chris Cornell's eyes in "Black Holde Sun," the hit from last year's No. 1 album "Superunknown." But never before has Soundgarden relied on snake imagery more that it does on "Down on the Upside," the band's rawer, looser follow up to "Superunknown." "Eat the fruit, and kiss the snake good night," Mr. Cornell sings in his high pitched voice in the album's first song, "Pretty Noose." In "Tighter and Tighter," he softly moans, "Fell too far to start again/A sudden snake found my shape and tells the world." And in "Unkind," the bassist Ben Shepherd pitches in, "We see the vipers of distance/Crawl into our lives every day/Breeding our Edens of hatred." Even when there is no mention of the snake, it is still present. He lurks in titles like "Applebite" and in the references to primal sin and falls from Paradise in other songs. In its songs, Soundgarden does not represent the snake but rather is possessed by it and is led into sin by it. Thus the victimizers are the victims, able to sin without repenting and to escape responsibility for their actions. In this way the band can harness grunge's self-absorbtion to heavy metal's destructive energy and come up with a song like "Blow Up the Outside World." SG's guitarist, Kim Thayil, is the master of the serpentine, playing Jimmy Page to Mr. Cornell's Robert Plant. Or, on "Down on the Upside"'s weaker tracks -- about a third of the 16 song album -- he plays Eddie Van Halen to Mr. Cornell's Sammy Hagar. He slowly wraps his guitar lines around Mr. Cornell's voice in "Tighter and Tighter," increasing in intensity until he overwhelms the singer. The snake isn't the only animal invoked on "Down on the Upside." There are some mice, a dog, an ant and one fictional rhinsaur. Generally, identifying with animals in song lyrics is a sign of low self-esteem, and Soundgarden is no exception. For all the virility and macho power that rock singers have tried to wring from the snake, Soundgarden remains more interested in the fact that it is the only animal curse to spend its days slithering on the ground. As Mr. Cornell sings in "Rhinosaur," "Only healthy in the dirt."