March 8th 1994, Soundgarden released their fourth full length studio album Superunknown through A&M Records. Superunknown was a critical and commercial success and became the band’s breakthrough album. It debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, selling 310,000 copies in its opening week.
Superunknown wasn’t just a highly anticipated album from a critically acclaimed rock band, its multi-platinum success and Grammy wins almost felt predestined. This was Soundgarden’s long overdue turn to come out on top. Even though they were the band that forged the way for many of their peers in the Seattle scene. They were the first to sign to a major label, one of the first to tour nationally and internationally and one of the first to proudly shine a light on the new sounds of the Pacific Northwest. But despite their originality and obvious brilliance, they would be leapfrogged in the multi-platinum stakes by Nirvana and Pearl Jam in the early 90’s
1991’s Badmotorfinger was a masterpiece on their terms. The band didn’t pander to anyone’s notion of artistic success but their own. Never sacrificing their metallic edge, their skewed off kilter time signatures or their individuality.
While that album sold in significant numbers and added legions of new fans to their ranks, it didn’t achieve the crossover success of Nevermind or Ten. Superunknown was Soundgarden’s crossover moment.
By early 1994, however, the playing field had changed considerably: Though Pearl Jam were still the most popular rock band in America, they were actively trying to be the least visible one, declaring a moratorium on videos and interviews in an orchestrated (and ultimately successful) campaign to kill their own hype. Nirvana, likewise, were in the midst of a similar retreat, and though their story had yet to reach its tragic conclusion, ominous warning signs were in the air.
“We wanted to show that we stood alone and outside of what was becoming a convenient geographic group that we were inside,” Chris Cornell told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I never felt bad about being lumped in with other Seattle bands. I thought it was great. But I also felt like all of us were going to have to prove that we could also exist with autonomy, and we deserved to be playing on an international stage, and we deserved to have videos on TV and songs on the radio, and it wasn’t just a fad like the ‘British invasion’ or a ‘New York noise scene. Superunknown was that for me. It was showing what we were not just a flavour of the month. We had the responsibility to seize the moment”
And seize the moment they did.
Most bands would have been exhausted creatively after an album as potent, spellbinding and perfect as Badmotorfinger. Soundgarden took that piece of high art and used it as a springboard to take Superunknown into the stratosphere. Rarely, in the history of rock n roll has a band achieved such a devastating one, two punch with back to back jaw dropping albums.
Soundgarden began work on the album about two months after finishing its stint on the 1992 Lollapalooza tour. The individual band members would work on material on their own and then bring in demos to which the other members of the band would contribute. The album’s recording sessions took place from July 1993 to September 1993 at Bad Animals Studio in Seattle, Washington. Michael Beinhorn produced the album with Bad Animals’ resident engineer Adam Kasper assisting Beinhorn on the recording process. Adam Kasper went on to produce Soundgarden’s following albums.
Superunknown is a sprawling record, spanning grunge, alternative metal, stoner rock, and psychedelia; streamlined under a pop sensibility that makes it one of the most accessible and infectious rock albums of the 90’s. Kicking off with Let Me Drown, a cascading, chromatic riff driving on top of Matt Cameron’s insistent beat. Chris Cornell intoning “Stretch the bones over my skin, Stretch the skin over my head, I’m going to the holy land..” in the opening verse.
My Wave follows. A song that freely slips between time signatures. Predominantly in 5/4 which is a particularly irregular time signature for rock music, the song changes to 4/4 and 9/8 then back again numerous times. Soundgarden were so skilled as songwriters and arrangers that these juxtapositions of tempo, so prominent in their writing, never sounded anything but fluid and coherent.
Fell On Black Days is beautifully sombre. Mailman is filled with existential dread and a glacial riff that threatens to explode in feedback at every turn. The title track is an infectious, hook laden romp. Spoonman rattles with a guest appearance from Artis The Spoonman, in what might be the first and only spoon solo on a chart topping rock album.
Black Hole Sun, Considered to be the band’s signature song, topped the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart, where it spent a total of seven weeks at number one. Despite peaking at number two on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart, “Black Hole Sun” finished as the number-one track of 1994 for that listing. Worldwide, the single reached the top 10 in Australia, Canada, France, and Ireland, while in Iceland, it reached number one.
In 2014, Chris Cornell explained the song’s origins to Uncut Magazine:
“I wrote it in my head driving home from Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville, a 35–40 minute drive from Seattle. It sparked from something a news anchor said on TV and I heard wrong. I heard ‘blah blah blah black hole sun blah blah blah’. I thought that would make an amazing song title, but what would it sound like? It all came together, pretty much the whole arrangement including the guitar solo that’s played beneath the riff. I spent a lot of time spinning those melodies in my head so I wouldn’t forget them. I got home and whistled it into a Dictaphone. The next day I brought it into the real world, assigning a couple of key changes in the verse to make the melodies more interesting. Then I wrote the lyrics and that was similar, a stream of consciousness based on the feeling I got from the chorus and title.”
Soundgarden would go on to release 1996’s “Down on the Upside” before disbanding in 1997. Matt Cameron joined Pearl Jam in 1998 and has been in that band ever since, and Chris Cornell went on to success as a member of Audioslave and as a solo artist before reforming in 2010.
Cameron, Cornell, Shepherd and Thayil together as Soundgarden was truly lightning in a bottle. Four immensely talented and focused individuals who became a force of nature as a unit. The depth of Soundgarden’s creativity, originality and abilities are staggering. Superunknown is a crowning achievement in a career full of them.