[27 June 2014]
Soundgarden started in 1984 with a strange progressive / punk / thrash sound—with a bit of Black Sabbath thrown in—that predated what is now known as “grunge”. In their early days they covered unlikely songs and dabbled in unlikely genres (see the dance / dub track “FOPP” from their second EP) before settling into their signature, albeit evolving, sound. As musical tastes changed along with the turn of the decade into the 1990s, Soundgarden was no longer featured in heavy metal magazines or in rotation on MTV’s Headbangers Ball, but were promoted along with the more “alternative” bands of the era until they finally became enormous commercial successes thanks to their breakthrough album Superunknown, 20 years ago.
To celebrate this milestone, the band is re-releasing Superunknown in a deluxe 20th Anniversary edition that consists of no less than five discs: one CD and one Blu-ray audio disc of the original album in its entirety and three more CDs of alternate takes and rarities. Is it worth the money and the time to listen? Unquestionably.
Superunknown may be easily regarded as Soundgarden’s most commercial album, if only for the fact that it is the band’s most successful, achieving a certification of five times platinum. However, Superunknown is not a sell out record for the band, nor is it devoid of Soundgarden’s signature style or even a relinquishing of said style in favor of the sounds of their brethren in the “Grunge” subgenre of music—a subgenre Soundgarden never actually fit into or exemplified. In fact, while Superunknown may not feature Soundgarden’s best songs, it is arguably the band’s best all around album, with consistently great songs throughout, including those that were packaged as singles to propel Superunknown to super stardom.
Part of this is because the songs themselves are fascinatingly complex and cerebral and hardly fit the mold of what most people would consider singles these days, or ever. Most, if not all, of the singles from the album feature dark themes that might cause even Robert Smith of the Cure to suggest that singer-songwriter Chris Cornell try Prozac.“The Day I Tried to Live” and “Fell on Black Days” are two of the album’s biggest hits and deal with depressing failure and crushing defeat, all set to murky song textures that beckon the ear to listen. The album’s mega hit, “Black Hole Sun”, features a surreal dreamscape with lyrics that aren’t quite universally accessible. The remaining two singles, “Spoonman” and “My Wave”, feature unconventional instruments and abnormal instrument tuning. And those were just the singles. Imagine the songs that weren’t chosen for their commercial potential.
The 20th Anniversary release could stand as something of a greatest hits compilation in its own right for all of the rarities it contains. The live tracks that dominate the second disc do not merely showcase Superunknown, but also versions of songs from Badmotorfinger and Ultramega OK. Soundgarden have proven their concert chops over and over again, going way back to their 1990 home video (and rare accompanying EP) Louder Than Live. The live tracks here are no exception.
The real treasure trove of Superunknown’s re-release however, is found in the vast amount of alternate takes scattered all over discs two through four. When “Fell on Black Days” was released as a single, a video was made, as were videos for the other four singles. However, this was not the band merely lip synching to the album version of the song, but performing it live for producer Brendan O’Brien. That raw and fascinating version is included here, but stands as only one of many examples of alternate takes.
Disc two begins with an alternate mix of “The Day I Tried to Live” and continues into the alternate Steve Fisk remix of “Spoonman”. Cut songs and b-sides like “Exit Stonehenge”, “Kyle Petty, Son of Richard” and “Birth Ritual” (which was released on the Singles soundtrack) help to round out the rare side of this soundscape, with oddities like “Jerry Garcia’s Finger” and “Ghostmotorfinger” all pointing toward the fact that this is not your usual “expanded edition” packed with repeats.
This is a good thing, of course, because with so many alternate versions, remixes, rehearsals, live recordings and demos, this collection could seem like an exercise in sameness (there are no less than four individual renditions of “Fell on Black Days” and “The Day I Tried to Live” each). Fascinatingly, Superunknown’s 20th anniversary edition never quite falls into this sad trap. The arrangement of the songs on these four discs—plus the Blu-ray, which is a high definition copy of the first disc—is done in such a way as to showcase the band’s talents while separating individual songs from their alternate versions. Further, this arrangement and the professionalism of the band combine to show exactly why there are so many versions of each tune: because Soundgarden is never content to release the song until it is ready.
“Black Days III” is a dark and harsh version of its better-known sister song, but sounds like it might have fit somewhere on Screaming Life, the band’s first EP. Conversely, the (original) Steve Fisk remix of “Spoonman” separates itself from the single version by actually including samples from the aforementioned Soundgarden dance song “Fopp”. While it is true that some of the song versions are very similar to their final studio product, such as “Kickstand”, the versions are great to listen to for fans, especially because they don’t appear adjacent to each other on the discs. And then, of course, there are the mess-around tracks like “The Date I Tried to Leave”, which features Cornell’s pained description of a night out with a girl. It doesn’t go well.
It is hard to say that the “rehearsal” tracks will be accessible to many more than hardcore Soundgarden fans or musicians who can relate to the start-stop and voiceover style of pushing through a song and trying to get it right, but then again, it’s hard to imagine many outside-of-hardcore fans of the band forking over the $90-plus it costs to buy this collection. Those that have the money and the interest should definitely do so, however. The overall experience is magnificent, even when listened to from start to finish, straight through. Is there room for a sprawling re-release this huge with this many repeated tracks? As Cornell wrote in “Fell on Black Days”, so appropriately, “Don’t you lock up something that you wanted to see fly.” The Superunknown 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition is worth every second of its very long run time.