May 21st, 1996, Soundgarden released Down On The Upside through A&M Records. How do you follow up the devastating one, two combination knockout of 1991’s Badmotorfinger, which gleefully tenderised the mid-section of the rabid alterna-rock fanbase with a crushing liver shot. Only for Soundgarden to finish the job with the perfect uppercut of Superunknown in 1994.
By 1996 Soundgarden had reached the highs they were always destined for. They were heavyweight champs. Releasing back to back masterpieces in Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. Displaying a fiercely original streak, the band’s creativity seemed limitless, fresh and inspiring. But times they were a changing. 1996 saw the juggernauts of the early 90’s (Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, STP) ceding ground to the encroaching scourges of post-grunge and nu-metal. All of the iconic artists of the earlier part of the decade were winding down.
Following Soundgarden’s titanic mainstream breakthrough, 1994’s Superunknown, they released the long slow goodbye of Down On The Upside.
Opening with the psychedelic intro riff of “Pretty Noose” (which was the album’s first single), “Down On The Upside” immediately feels like a familiar old blanket. All boxes are ticked. Kim Thayil’s wah, check..! Psychedelic flourishes, check..! Off kilter time signatures, check..! Chris Cornell’s banshee wail, check..! “Pretty Noose” sounds like a band fully in control of their abilities.
What distinguishes Down On The Upside from its predecessors is its sonic departure. Produced by the band themselves. Cornell’s voice is to the fore. Emphasis is placed on instrumental melody rather than the monumental slab riffage heard on Badmotorfinger or the gorgeous murky throb of Superunknown. Despite the lighter touch, the album is rawer. Had the band employed an outside producer, this raw edge would most likely have been removed. But the band chose to leave things as organic, dissonant and open as possible. Which only benefits the album as a whole.
Chris Cornell explained their decision to produce themselves, “a fifth guy is too many cooks and convolutes everything. It has to go down too many mental roads, which dilutes it.” In 1996, drummer Matt Cameron acknowledged this and said that recording Superunknown was “a little more of a struggle than it needed to be”. The band would not do it all alone, though. They recruited Adam Kasper to engineer and collaborate on production. He also mixed the album. Kasper had worked as the assistant engineer on Superunknown.
Recording sessions for the album took place between November 1995 and February 1996 at Studio Litho and Bad Animals Studios in Seattle, Washington. Studio Litho is owned by Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard.
“Rhinosaur” is a Matt Cameron composition, packed with bristling, odd time changes and cascading riffs. It’s a formula so elemental to the Soundgarden sound, yet in their hands, is always fresh and exciting. The albums third track “Zero Chance” is, more so than openers “Pretty Noose” or “Rhinosaur” emblematic of the tone and direction of Down On The Upside. As a collection of songs, it’s more measured and frankly “mellower” than previous efforts. “Zero Chance” blends acoustic guitars with haunting melodies with Cornell’s refrain of “They say if you look hard/You’ll find your way back home/Born without a friend, And bound to die alone”
“Dusty” is a bluesy head nodder, again bringing the acoustic guitars to the fore. Just four songs into Down On The Upside and we’ve already seen more acoustic guitars than Badmotorfinger and Superunknown combined. “Ty Cobb” follows, its intro again teasing acoustic guitars and even banjo, before igniting into a raging, punk fireball.
“Blow Up The Outside World”, another single, is a continuation of the Beatles-esque songwriting displayed on Superunknown’s mega hit “Black Hole Sun” albeit a lot darker both musically and lyrically ” Nothing, seems to kill me/ no matter how hard I try/ Nothing is closing my eyes” is a heartbreaking line to hear Cornell sing.
“Burden In My Hand” is positively upbeat in comparison. Starting out with Cornell singing like a Pied Piper over an acoustic guitar strum “Follow me/ into the desert/ as thirsty as you are”
Later sees the sinister beauty of “Applebite”. Followed by the gargantuan, claustrophobic behemoth “Never The Machine Forever” which acts as a welcome shift of pace and a mid album palate cleanser. The songs lyrics and music were written by guitarist Kim Thayil, who in the albums liner notes credits former Mother Love Bone/Ten Minute Warning drummer, Greg Gilmore as “Inspiration” for the song. “Tighter and Tighter” harks back to Soundgarden circa Louder Than Love and Ultramega OK. It’s heavy bluesy riffs and Black Sabbath vibes reminiscent of the band at the beginning of their journey.
On an album of considerable heft and duration, Soundgarden saved some of the best songs for last. The final four of “Switch Opens,” “Overfloater,” “An Unkind,” and “Boot Camp.” are breathtaking. Collectively, these four songs are the otherworldly final word on Soundgarden’s initial closing chapter. Special credit has to be given to bassist Ben Shepherd who wrote the music and in some cases lyrics, for many of the album’s best songs. He was really coming into his own as a unique songwriter with a gifted ability to find completely new ways to deliver a rock song in the oldest format of all, guitar, bass and drums.
Tension within the band was growing during recording, but in some ways, those tensions are a significant reason why the album worked so well. Thayil retrospectively claimed that the album has a “dual nature” and “it keeps listeners on their toes”. Rumor has it, Thayil and Cornell were at loggerheads over the sonic direction of the band at the time. The guitarist wanted more riff-heavy songs, whereas Cornell desired to shift away from the sound that had coloured the band’s previous work.
Looking back, Shepherd’s claim that “Down on the Upside” was the most accurate picture of what Soundgarden “actually sounds like” might be true. It’s an album that puts Soundgarden’s inquisitive nature front and centre, it takes risks, it’s got elements of their past and glimpses of their future. But ultimately, Down On The Upside was their undoing. After the album’s tour cycle the band called it quits in 1997. DOTUS was a fitting swan song for a truly great band.
Until they reformed…!!!!!