16 tracks and 74 minutes : Superunknown is clearly attractive at first sight.
The front cover and the booklet give a taste of the general mood of the record.
The front cover exerts a magnetic power with that glowing character who stands
in the darkness with a devilish smile. The expression on his face echoes those
of some of the characters in the video for Black Hole Sun. On the lower part of
the picture, one can discern the edge of a forest (the area around Seattle is
essentially made of pinewood) if you turn it upside down. The inside reveals
itself to be a precious guide into the oddness of this world. Radiantly coloured photographs represent enigmatic landscapes which picture altogether a
strange fresco and stains the booklet with mystery. When you read or listen the
lyrics, there is something you immediately understand : these are not dull texts - like the sky the blue, the birds sing and I am sick of it- which are
commonly produced by bands who privilege the musical dimension. A gloomy poetry
rules this record. Most of the lyrics have been written by Chris Cornell, they
are acid, disenchanted and mysterious. They create mystical visions, challenge
the fragility of dreams and confront love with death and sorrow. Now let’s
The record opens with Let Me Drown, an introduction in order to remove the fouling from the amps and discover the secrets of this dark nebula. The song is a hybrid entity which melts metal, groove and power rock. Listen and you will know what I mean. My Wave is a dynamic song which runs at good speed. The riff is incisive and the lyrics are not too serious : do what you want but don’t fuck with me… The energy cools off with Fell on Black Days which is much more sober and subtle than the others, regarding music and singing. The intelligence and maturity that emanate from this song contrast with the punkish style attitude of their first records.
Mailman is rather slow, it is made of heavy riffs and Cornell’s voice astonishingly stands out. One can easily distinguish the heavy metal influences of the Seattle’s combo here. They were swallowed, assimilated and then regurgitated in a personal manner.
The eponymous title, Superunknown, stylistically echoes Badmotorfinger with more work and more shades.
Head Down and Half are both baroque and mysterious, a recreation for the band who temporarily abandons the album’s sluggishness. The second one is a kind of oriental interlude which is dark still.
The record eventually offers the famous Black Hole Sun which gave the band an amazing impact on the musical scene of the time. Grunge was at the height of its fame. The video was elected best metal video of the year and this amused the band because this title is everything but metal. Everyone remembers this video or at least some of its scenes because of its aesthetical oddness (circus freaks meeting Stephen King’s characters), its visual atmosphere and the original script. It’s a work of art, just like the song which is an haunting ballad in a nightmare land.
Spoonman is dense, brutal and intense. The fluidity and dynamism of the song echoes Let me Drown. Drumming is completed with percussions and the Spoonman himself - Artis - plays with his spoons with great dexterity. A beautiful hymn dedicated to the universality of rhythm.
Limo Wreck is simple but effective : the style is refined in the first minutes, almost minimalist. The restrained rage shows through the slowness and heaviness of the song while the end is purely dark and incandescent.
The Day I Tried to Live opens with an innocent and fragile riff which initiates the gradual entrance of overdriven guitars. The force of the song comes from the melodic structure of the chorus and the alternation of lull and conflagration which offers another opportunity for Cornell to exploit his excellent voice.
Kickstand is a brief punk rock burn (1’30), a feverish reminder of preceding albums. Not one the best songs…
Fresh Tendrils goes deeper into the atmosphere suggested in Mind Riot or Searching with my Good Eye Closed (on Badmotorfinger). An harpsichord adds some unusual licks here and there.
4th of July is the climax of the album ; dark, heavy and sticky. Once again, the mystic atmosphere is enhanced by Cornell’s dark voice which delivers lethargic lines ( shower in the dark day / clean sparks diving down / cool in the waterway / where the baptized drown….) The rhythmic section painfully completes the song in the most simple way, another heavy brush stroke on that twilight painting, as if the drummer was tired to death. Implacable fate melts with apathy and an agonizing will to live. If you had to buy Superunknown on the faith of one track, this is the one. Of course, one might find darker moods elsewhere, Soundgarden is not the first band which wanders on the metallic aspect of grunge or rock, but 4th of July is one of these songs which seizes you slowly and completely, a never ending fall.
Like Suicide is long song built on crescendo. Calm and sober at first, it evolves towards a Zeppelin-esque ambience. From a mysterious prelude to a powerful riff which reminds me of Black Sabbath and an hallucinated solo by Kim Thayil who must have stepped on a wah wah when he was a child.
The album ends on She Likes Surprises, alternatively nasal or punchy. The humorous tone shows how the band is able to widen its style.
In the end, Superunknown is a musically homogeneous album, innovative in every way. The latent darkness may prevent the listener to fully penetrate this super unknown world at first, but it is only a matter of habit. This record gets better as time goes by and surrenders its secrets through repetitive listening. The band masters its art in terms of composition. This album is the height of their career and it is undoubtedly one of the best albums of the 90’s.
Translated by Angus Anderson
/nov 1st 2002/