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Soundgarden's Swan Song, One Album Too Early

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Wednesday, Nov 4, 2009

In 1989, I was lucky enough to discover Soundgarden two years before the grunge revolution. I read a rave about Louder Than Love in what was at that time my musical bible: Circus magazine. After a steady stream of Anthrax, Metallica, and Megadeth, I was floored at how heavy a band could be by playing so slow.


Two years later, I was somewhat disappointed by Badmotorfinger, partly because the sound wasn’t as raw as Louder Than Love, and partly because a lot of the kids at my high school were discovering a secret that I was in on two years before. By 1994, I was so steeped in playing “spot the sellout” that I couldn’t listen to their blockbuster Superunknown due to the incessant rotation of “Black Hole Sun”.


Years pass. People mature. And occasionally, you find yourself ready to pop in a CD that you may not have given much of a chance when it first came out. Sure, “Spoonman” still justifies the skip, but what floored me was the quality of the “deep tracks”, specifically the seven-minute closer “Like Suicide”.


If any song in Soundgarden’s arsenal showed how indispensible each member was, it was on this slow-burner of a closer. In the span of seven minutes, bassist Ben Sheppard starts the song with a bubbling bass line, leading into Kim Thayil’s warning siren-like guitar riff. Thayil and Sheppard keep the tension building while Chris Cornell goes from gentle croon, to rawk wail, to unleashed scream. Finally, as the entire thing explodes, drummer Matt Cameron closes the song with such ferocity, you’re half expecting to hear his snare crack. The entire effect is the musical equivalent of a dormant volcano slowly building before its Mt. St. Helens-like eruption.


On Superunkown, Soundgarden proudly wore their Led Zeppelin influence, and “Like Suicide” was the band’s “In My Time of Dying”. Comparing love to suicide is hardly original, and a year later Billy Corgan shouted Cornell’s lament almost verbatim on “Bodies”. But Cornell’s sentiments on “Like Suicide” were more sinister and thus more believable. When Cornell yells “I feel for you”, you’re not sure if that’s actually a good thing.


The lyrics also contained its share of cryptic foreshadowing. The most obvious one being the death of Kurt Cobain, who expressed his love of Louder Than Love in interviews. However, there are other most subtle instances. Nearly a half-decade before school shootings overtook the media spotlight, Cornell’s pained delivery of a line like “with an ounce of pain, I wield a ton of rage” can put a chill down a listener’s spine. And all this from a song that Cornell apparently wrote about a bird that fatally flew into a window in his house.


“Like Suicide” would have been a great capper for Soundgarden: It combined the pure aggressiveness of their earlier work with the refined skill the band demonstrated in the more Beatlesque songs on Superunknown. The song could also be on the shortlist for best song the band ever recorded. But the band opted for one more album, 1996’s Down the Upside, with mixed results. Still, many circles regard Superunkown as grunge’s last masterpiece. And like most masterpieces, the closing track pretty much determines whether it’s fit for that distinction or just merely a “great album”. Judged on “Like Suicide”, it was easy to figure out what category Superunknown would fall.

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