Reprinted without permission from the Village Voice,
June 18, 1996
FLEX YOUR HEAD
I carry in my mental scrapbook two snapshots of Chris Cornell, one for my eyes and one for my ears. The visual image is a Sub Pop publicity photo, circa 1986; Soundgarden's singer wades waist-deep in a Lake Washington lily pond with his bandmates. His long hair flows; on his bare chest are painted flowers, two childlike blossoms, his nipples the pistils.
The sonic memoir is from 'Temple of the Dog's' "Hunger Strike," a single from the one-off album Cornell recorded with members of his band and Pearl Jam in tribute to his late roommate and fellow Seattle rock star, Andy Wood. The chorus of that song is the simple phrase, "I'm going hungry"; Eddie Vedder emotes around it, mumbling, moaning, getting all sincere. It turns boring, then suddenly Cornell erupts. He wails, pushing the words out through his open vocal cords, his wide mouth forming them just enough to be understood. Vedder has no chance against this sudden storm. The grief of the song, its good intentions, drop away as Cornell's fury and strength win out.
Cornell has always been Seattle rock's most natural athlete, his band the easiest to hear as basic muscle rock. It's even true of their name -- organic as dirt yet nodding to craft (it's the name of a metal sculpture that makes music when struck). No matter how often they made fun of heavy metal (and themselves) in titles like "Big Dumb Sex" and 'Badmotorfinger,' in the music itself Soundgarden pursued one goal during 10 years of playing: to thoroughly know rock as a physical phenomenon, the sum total of the effort and skill a few people put into the basic tasks of riffing, drumming, howling. Words were not the point. Style was not the point. They knew their value was a naked one: pure, structured noise.
It was a simple approach, although the music often took complicated turns -- odd time signatures, Kim Thayil's wackily experimental guitar solos, the chemical fires that could overwhelm when they mixed hardcore and metal compounds. At first they flailed. Cornell knew he had this big, dumb, untrained dog of a voice, and he often just let it run and piss its territory marks. His hyperactivity, combined with the band's unguided desire to "experiment" (i.e., fuck around in eight-minute stretches), made grunge acolytes suspect Soundgarden of sharing more than jokes with Spinal Tap. But drummer Matt Cameron found a suitable running partner in bassist Ben Shepherd in 1990, and the band cemented a workout routine: alternating between sprints and long-distance marathons, each member concentrated on keeping pace, with Cornell and Thayil trading places in the lead and the rhythm section biting their asses. By the time they went major label in 1988, Soundgarden's sound was as Cybex-primed as Madonna's inner thigh.
As physically gorgeous as it could be, with its clean, hard line no longer muddied by punk slack or grunge fuzz, Soundgarden's rock stayed hard to love. Alternative music is not virtuosity-friendly: its democratic impulses make skill seem like a dangerous privilege, the rich boy's reward for spending too many hours rehearsing riffs in his bedroom, and the emphasis it places on outsiderness presents vulnerability as realness, both in the personalities of its makers and in the music they make.
The automatically assumed vulnerability of women has allowed today's female alt-rock stars to have a lot of fun being aggressive and still seem cool; men have had to find other ways, whether they're Gavin Rossdale modeling a Kurt-like pout, Lou Barlow playing the nerd, Live's Ed Kowalzyck getting religion, or Everclear's Art Alexakis bending under the weight of his life experience. The Seattle bands that messed up the music-biz hegemony in the first place have struggled to maintain a foothold in this new order. After all, they were just a bunch of dudes who would have been skiing had they not decided to destroy rock and roll.
They've all tackled the problem in different ways. Mudhoney got trashier; the Screaming Trees explored their Romantic side; Pearl Jam found a savior in the preternaturally confused Vedder. But Soundgarden, having worked so hard to become wicked powerful, didn't want to give that up. Besides, what was privilege to them? One of the only mixed-race bands in their hometown, with a leader who dropped out of school at age 14 to support his mother, they couldn't possibly have seen themselves as naturally favored by the gods. Still, they must have noticed something missing from their well-built formula, because what they asked for from producer Michael Bienhorn (who'd made a mark with Soul Asylum's 'Grave Dancer's Union') on 1994's 'Superunknown' was a little meaning. And they got it, with Cornell pushing his brain instead of his brawn for a change.
Cornell has always been a frustrating sex symbol; girls think he's a hunk, but he rarely writes songs to them or even about them, and he makes bad fantasy fodder, since he happily married his manager, Susan Silver, at age 25. (They'd been a couple since the band's inception; risking the scorn of Gene Simmons, he recently told 'Spin', "The only close relationship I've ever had with a woman is with Susan.") What soft element might serve him remained a puzzle until 'Superunknown'. But that album answered the question with a winner -- depression. The well-worn affliction colored the lyrics of "Black Hole Sun" and "Fell on Black Day," both more enduring hits than "Spoonman," which relied on the old bash-'em-insensible formula. These songs gave the kids the dominant music their bodies craved, along with the emotional narrative their minds preferred. They assured Soundgarden the arena-rock status they'd worked for; the new blend also created an artistically rich tension. With the band as clean and taut as a powerhouse gets, foregrounding Cornell's paralyzing blues created an alluring paradox: weakness in strength, strength in weakness.
'Down on the Upside' is the band's self-produced follow-up to 'Superunknown,' and it shows that tension getting them a little lost. On some songs, they run free like in the old days, but now they prefer their chaos in a tight little package -- specifically, a blend of hardcore and speed metal with some bluegrass precision thrown in for a lark. Cuts like "Ty Cobb" and "Never Named" are simply joyful -- with the gloom lifted, those muscles shine in the sunlight. Similarly, "No Attention" takes the band's long-standing Zep fixation into overdrive, with chord-heavy riffs smashing down in a melodic ground offensive. Shepherd wrote the music on "Ty Cobb" and "Never Named," and throughout the album he provides the hooks. Thayil and Cameron favor spaciness, sometimes indulging in a disturbing amount of Pink Floyd-ism. But mostly it's Cornell who's still trying to gauge the band's potential for greatness, having less fun than the others but possibly aiming for a higher purpose.
Now that he's at the center of a band that some think defines the moment's mainstream rock, Cornell can't help but think about priorities. It all goes back to serving that basic imperative: how can the sound he and his mates make realize the possibilities inherent in its materials -- the metal and wood of the electric guitar and the pulled skin of the drum, and most of all Cornell's body itself, which houses a voice that continues to surprise him? And what does it mean when the feelings you have don't feed the desire for dominance, which the music encourages, but instead lead you toward an exploration of the ways in which you are powerless? These are the questions Cornell continues to raise, in songs like "Pretty Noose," "Burden in My hand," and "Blow Up the Outside World" -- scheduled to be 'Down on the Upsides' first three singles. Such questions may seem narcissistic. but with more and more alternative bands playing by the numbers, Soundgarden's quest for a very human perfection could be the best bet for rebuilding the musculature of rock.