In a modern rock world that belongs to fun. and Mumford & Sons, the grunge greats dust off their flannel, unpack their backlog of heavy riffs, and return to the record store racks with their first album in 16 years.
A few weeks ago a friend and I were browsing through Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart -- as we are wont to do -- and acquainting ourselves with what the kids these days are listening to (this is indeed how I keep entertained -- I am a music critic, after all). We were confounded to discover that American modern rock radio has been inundated with faceless Mumford & Sons soundalikes, late-coming (and lackluster) major label Arcade Fire wannabes, and Alex Care’s insufferable “Too Close”. The sense of adventurousness and excitement (not to mention a healthy dose of out-and-out rocking out) found in abundance during the format’s 1990s golden age was all but absent; instead, we were faced with a chart crowded with dull, unoffensive tracks that were more carefully concocted commercial jingles than proper songs, with nary a gritty guitar tone or expression of genuine anger or angst in evidence. What the hell happened, I thought to myself.
Aside from the latest Black Keys single, the only respite to be found was at the very bottom of the top 20, where Soundgarden’s new a-side “Been Away Too Long” was beginning to climb. True, it didn’t pack the immediate wallop of the reunited Seattle foursome’s prime, but it was a solid enough comeback for a band that hasn’t put out an album since the Clinton Administration. And in the context of modern rock radio’s current playlist, its swaying heavy riffage and squalling lead guitar shrieks sounded downright radical, and certainly hardier than fun. or the Lumineers.
Truth be told, it would’ve been fine if Soundgarden never put together another studio album. Sure, the quartet’s disbandment in 1997 was a shame, the symbolic end of the grunge movement and the last call for a much-admired heavy rock ensemble, but it never felt like the group had left any potential untapped. It had earned its place in the history books by helping to create the Seattle Sound, and after attaining stardom as part of the ‘90s alt-rock revolution, it hit its creative stride, giving the world several stellar singles and full-lengths, and one stone-cold masterpiece in the form of 1994’s Superunknown. Actually, the prospect of a new Soundgarden album was a possible source of concern. Would the chemistry still be there, or would it turn out as disappointing as Chris Cornell’s stint with Audioslave turned out to be? (What happens when you team up the singer of Soundgarden with the instrumentalists of Rage Against the Machine? You get the lukewarm middle-ground of both bands.)
I can safely say that King Animal (another entry in the band’s proud tradition of ridiculous CD titles) does not sully the Soundgarden legacy. Everything the sarcastic flannel-wearer hibernating inside of us all might hope for is present: Cornell’s weathered yet still sturdy wail, a weighty rhythm section, and an unending stream of detuned riffs in weird time signatures. This time though there’s more of a conventional rockist swagger to the grooves, a leather-trouser sexiness that exudes from the music that the band always steered away from before (and outright mocked in songs like “Big Dumb Sex”). The reason the group moves like this? Simple: it’s having fun. Given how suicidally bleak Cornell’s lyrics typically are, it’s nice to hear how much he and his bandmates obviously enjoy playing with one another again.
Yet, King Animal doesn’t expand the Soundgarden legacy, either. It’s a record that undertakes the kind of brand-maintaining return-to-norm path fellow alt-rockers Stone Temple Pilots and Alice in Chains have embarked upon after returning from lengthy absences. Like “Been Away Too Long”, the rest of the album follows the standard Soundgarden LP blueprint without standing out on its own. King Animal consists of a hefty selection of mid-tempo riff rockers, a few acoustic detours, and clutch of short, speedy numbers to remind listeners that these guys grew up on punk rock -- it’s all the wares Soundgarden fans have heard before, laid out so uniformly that it’s a shock when the super-catchy “Halfway There” rolls around and reminds you of what these fellows can be capable of. A somewhat flat mix doesn’t really help: Soundgarden pivots and parries as usual, but a better sense of dynamics is much needed to make the performances truly pop.
After roughly a decade where new great rock riffs were thin on the ground, this is one album that appears intent on redressing the balance. Listening to Cornell and Kim Thayil spool out riff after riff after riff (regardless of the arguments to be made for the virtues to be found in Cornell’s solo output and Audioslave tenure, none of it possess the same --excuse the cliché -- magic that’s evident when he and Thayil are playing together) is a pleasant reminder of just how inventive and idiosyncratic Soundgarden’s music is, using everything from detuned power chords to doubled single-note line to noisy, dissonant textures to create head-bobbing hard rock that is monolithic yet nuanced. In isolation, songs such as “Worse Dreams”, “Eyelids Mouth”, and the hammering “By Crooked Steps” can be appreciated for their composition, for the way the band deploys and tweaks those riffs to take to listener to unexpected yet logical places. But maybe because Cornell and Co. are older and mellower, nothing on King Animal ever goes straight for the jugular. Back when it did, Soundgarden could keep Nirvana at bay at with one hand and Metallica with the other. Yet there really are no worlds left for Soundgarden to conquer, no great victories left to achieve beyond having a hit comeback album that isn’t crap. So we get music that is comfortably, unmistakably Soundgarden, that in the long view of the band’s career can be described as respectably average.
But for a group of Soundgarden’s magnitude and cleverness, average is still pretty damn good. And it’s an average that makes fun. and Of Monsters and Men look positively feeble in comparison. Even in mid-gear and middle age, Soundgarden is still king.