Reprinted without permission from SPIN Magazine, June
SOUNDGARDEN: DOWN ON THE UPSIDE
8 out of 10
Soundgarden's history raises the puzzling question of how on earth they got from there to here. The sonic poses of the band's grunge infancy -- Kim Thayil's imaginary-stadium guitar noise, Chris Cornell's screech of self-absorption -- were impressive but oh so cold. 1989's major-label debut, Louder Than Love, provided a turbulent adolescence, reimagining Led Zep and Black Sabbath as dismal art metal. How did Soundgarden become the band capable of yearning power ballads like "Black Hole Sun" and "Fell On Black Days," not to mention the hard-rock apotheosis of the rest of Superunknown? Partly, technique and restraint: Cornell discovered that three-octave Ozzy divas make a bigger impact in small doses, Thayil's palette broadened to include nuance, and Matt Cameron drummed in ways other than as loud as possible. But beyond improving on songwriting and constructing the perfect arena-shaking riff machine, with Superunknown Soundgarden unveiled the aura of a deservedly huge rock band: gestures of solidarity and three-dimensional sex appeal.
Thayil once commented that "Chris is especially sexual onstage, but after the show he doesn't belong to you, and I think people sense that. I think we may scare young women." Cornell's burnished chest and camera-monitor-flaying mane have been the subject of some of the most blatant exploitation of a rocker's physique in recent years -- innovative approaches to sexualizing the male body were always central to the grunge phenomenon -- but Soundgarden remained an uptight, macho boys club. Curiously, as Cornell began to act less like a pinup, wearing the occasional upper-body garment and accepting that curly hair on a man is best kept short, he became ever more seductive and human; this is part of what helped Soundgarden go pop.
"And I look like a man / And I feel like an ant," Cornell sings in Down On The Upside's "Never Named," maybe describing the sensation of looking at his own image on stadium monitors, maybe just owning up to, you know, low self-esteem. It's Soundgarden's great boon that Cornell has gotten better and better at communicating down-to-earth feelings in grandiose musical settings. His pledge in the same song, "And I'll keep playing in the sand / Just as long as I can," comes across less as rock-star indulgence than as an honest communcation with an audience he knows shares his weakness for infantile hedonism. Corny lines throughout the album -- "I need a little sympathy," "Make your own mind," "There must be something else / There must be something good / Far away" -- supply the emotional details a person needs to find a way into forbiddingly huge songs. "Follow me into the desert / As thirsty as you are / Crack a smile and cut your mouth / And drown in alcohol," goes the chorus of "Burden In My Hand." It's that "crack a smile" that shows how far Soundgarden and Cornell have come, allowing a few chinks to appear in the armor of their monumentality.
Down On The Upside is as sprawling ad generous-spririted as Superunknown, but while Michael Beinhorn's meticulous production rendered every detail vivid on that album, the self-produced Down On The Upside is a looser and live-er sounding affair, not seeking the same level of aural precision; i.e., Soundgarden doesn't sound so much like Ruch anymore. There's a new rhythmic tilt in a few songs that suggests the influence of the unjustly maligned '70s boogie tradition -- you can practically hear "Sweet Home Alabama" hovering behind the backbeat of "Burden." Within the parameters of the band's doomy attitude, they sound positively playful. Witness "Ty Cobb," which begins with 20 seconds of mandolin a la "Maggie May," then veers off into high-BPM hardcore, in which the chorus "Hard headed fuck you all" coincides with some mean slippery-fingered mandola playing. The album hits low points when looseness degenerates into failed anthems of self-indulgence. "Blow Up The Outside World" channels the Beatles' "I'm So Tired" in a vain effort to make suicidal/homicidal solipsism seem like a heroic stance. "Overfloater" combines a queasy groove with vague lyrics that might be about taking a bath stoned.
Soundgarden's headlining of Lollapalooza alongside Metallica in a Monsters of Alt pairing sums up the ironies that have bedeviled their attempts to figure out who they are. If bombastic heavy metal is noisy, arty, and indebted to postpunk, is it a parody? A necessary updating? What happens to these distinctions when a band is recorded, marketed, and experienced exactly like any other dinosaur metal band? Soundgarden worry such questions in songs like the powerfully lurching "Rhinosaur," where Cornelll yowls "I play, I'm sick and tame / Drawing the hordes," in a Kurt-worthy moment of arena-rock self-consciousness. "Only happy when you hurt / Only deadly in a swarm / Only healthy in the dirt / Only empty in your arms," he sings; it's not clear whether the "deadly" and sadistic subject of the sentence is the rock band -- grown far too huge, a monster -- or the terrifying crowd swarming out there in the mud. This summer, Cornell will have a chance to decide once and for all which one is scarier.