September 5th, 1989, SOUNDGARDEN released their second full-length studio album, Louder Than Love, through A&M Records. Louder Than Love is where Soundgarden delivered on their potential in spades. The band’s full-length debut, 1988’s Ultramega OK, and their preceding EPs, Screaming Life and Fopp, proved they were an extraordinary young band. But, as they entered London Bridge Studios in Seattle in December of 1988 to begin work on Louder Than Love, few could have imagined how great they had become.
Louder Than Love is Soundgarden in peak form. Their immaculate one-two punch of ’91s Badmotorfinger and ’94s Superunknown rightly scoop all the accolades and praise. Those albums are, without a shadow of a doubt, masterpieces and two of the greatest rock albums of all time. But Louder Than Love deserves a place on that podium, too. After the band released their debut EPs on Seattle’s Sub Pop Records in 1987, they signed to America’s most respected punk rock label SST Records and released their debut album Ultramega OK in 1988.
Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn founded SST Records in 1978. Author Michael Azerrad wrote, “Ginn took his label from a cash-strapped, cop-hassled store-front operation to easily the most influential and popular underground indie of the Eighties.” SST’s catalogue is impeccable. It reads as a who’s who of the most influential and vital underground acts of the 1980s and beyond. Alongside releasing all of Black Flag’s output, SST and Ginn signed and released ground-breaking albums by Husker Du, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Subhumans, Saint Vitus, Sonic Youth, Bad Brains, Firehose, Das Damen, Dinosaur Jr. and fellow Pacific Northwest alumni Screaming Trees.
So, when, after the release of Ultramega OK, Soundgarden promptly quit SST and signed to major label A&M Records in late 1988, suspicions of their motivations and intentions were rife. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear Soundgarden were of the mood that they wanted as many people as possible to hear their music. And A&M could make that a reality. SST and Sub Pop may have had all the street cred, but their distribution networks and promotional capabilities paled in comparison.
During the ’80s and into the ’90s, bands who left credible independent record labels and signed with majors were met with instant catcalls of “sell out.” At the time, many thought that Louder Than Love was Soundgarden’s attempt to edge closer to the rock mainstream, which is nonsense. In 1989, the mainstream was Aerosmith’s Pump, Motley Crue’s Dr Feelgood, Skid Row’s debut album and The Cult’s Sonic Temple, and through a new ‘alternative’ sensibility spearheaded by Nine Inch Nails, Faith No More, Dinosaur Jr., Jane’s Addiction and Sonic Youth was gaining traction, Louder Than Love was, even by the standards of the latter group of acts, an outlier. So, if Soundgarden were vying for the mainstream rock audience, they forgot one crucial thing. They sounded nothing like mainstream rock and did not attempt to.
Louder Than Love was released two years before the “grunge” explosion of 1991, but is wholly the blueprint for what was to come. It’s a monumental slab of incredible songwriting, gargantuan riffs, slippery, odd time signatures, ominous, bleak atmosphere, balls-out rockers and is the band’s funniest album to boot. It’s shot through with dark, witty sarcasm and revels in lampooning the machismo glam rock posturing of the day. Everything was ratcheted up several notches; their sound got tighter and heavier, their delivery more confident. This was the point in Soundgarden’s trajectory where they went from uber-talented local heroes to self-aware architects of their future.
The band chose Terry Date to produce the album. “They were just different,” said Date, “It was a period of time when things were all hair metal. There was a lot of dumb, butt-rock metal without any thought. Then Soundgarden came along, and you’ve got these four incredibly brilliant people, and they’re doing heavy riffs with really smart lyrics. My goal at the time was to make music that would still be valid in 20 years, and those guys completely fit the bill.”
One irony that befell the band was just as their sound and direction were becoming cast iron and sure-footed, the interpersonal relationships within were anything but rosy. Tensions were mounting between the band and founding member Hiro Yamamoto. Already beginning to lose interest in and distance himself from the band, Yamamoto’s presence during the writing and recording process became minimal. Louder Than Love’s move toward more metallic passages made Yamamoto question his place in the band. By the time they were ready to promote the record, Yamamoto announced that he would be leaving the band to pursue other interests.
Matt Cameron’s 6/8 drum riff introduces the opening track “Ugly Truth.” Cornell and Thayil’s looping, off-kilter guitar riff feels eerie, transcendent and utterly engaging. Thayil adds further tension with noise guitar dissonance before Cornell enters with a typically devastating and emotive vocal, “You hide your eyes, But the ugly truth, Just loves to give it away, You gave yourself, If you were mine to give, I might throw it away..”
“Hands All Over,” the second single released from the album, was written by Kim Thayil with lyrics by Chris Cornell. It’s a psych-tinged, ecology-related protest song replete with massive, Drop-D slugging groove and urgent banshee wails from Cornell, extolling the failings of humanity and perilous knife edge the environment and mother nature are in, “You’re gonna kill your mother, gonna kill your mother, Kill your mother, And I love her…” “What I liked about the song was that it was just one simple riff, one note, one chord, but with a lot of dynamics,” said Thayil, “In some ways, it’s simple and basic; in other ways, it’s very sophisticated in how it was layered. We don’t have many songs like “Hands All Over”.
“Gun” is a truly unique ride. Starting as a sludgy, slow crawl, its twisted three-note riff then speeds up to a walk, then a run, then into a raging, thrashing gallop. Thayil delivers a discordant, flaying punk solo as the band crashes and dissolves into a cacophonous mess. Then, like a comic book monster rising from a swamp, the sludgy, slow, crawling riff returns at a glacial pace. Cornell sings, “I got an idea of something we can do with a gun, Sink load and fire till the empire reaps what they’ve sown, Shoot, shoot, shoot till their minds are open, Shoot, shoot till their eyes are closed….”
“Power Trip” opens with Cornell’s vocals matching Thayil’s upper fret double stop bends note for note. His helium wail goes toe to toe with the guitar’s upper register with ease before the song drops into a Sabbath-esque riff, complete with flattened fifth thrills a la Tony Iommi. Cornell sounds incredibly menacing and expressive as his voice becomes the song’s less-than-salubrious character. “So maybe now the Pope will bow and kiss my ring; I wanna be king, king, king, king, I swear to God I know what I want, and I need, Oh I need, I want to be king..”
“Get On The Snake” is a riotous stomp in another oddball 9/4 time signature. Packed with a hard-hitting grove and exhilarating dynamics to match the song’s subject matter. Cornell’s trippy psychedelic lyrics extolling the virtues of travel. The song is an ode to Soundgarden’s early days, travelling from gig to gig in a beat-up van (the “snake” being the highway): “Get on the snake with a swarm of motor fly’s, Get on the snake under the cola coloured sky..” and later “Get on the snake where the water turns to steam, Get on the snake with a suicide machine…”
“Full On Kevin’s Mom” is both hilarious and musically brilliant. Cornell recalled, “Full On Kevin’s Mom is about a friend who slept with another friend of mine’s mom. The guy who did it said to us, ‘Yeah, full on Kevin’s mom’.” The song is a balls-out (excuse the pun) thrasher. Cornell tells a tale of a group of friends, “You don’t get nothing for free; Kev and me were two of three, Three brothers to the end, Then one went full on Kev’s mom; now things have changed…” Chris’ heavy panting throughout the song is hilarious, as is his high-pitched shriek of “..MOMMY..” before Thayil’s ripping guitar solo.
“Loud Love” was the album’s first single. Again Cornell’s incredible, super high-pitched wail matches Thayil’s guitar feedback intro, then he slowly descends as a cascading steamroller of a riff takes over. The song’s middle eighth sounds like a cross between the cold, detached beauty of Faith era Cure and pummelling, slug of Paranoid era Black Sabbath. One of the album’s stand-out tracks follows.
“I Awake” is bitterly cold, bleak and disturbing in all the right ways. Like a fantastic film noir, its sound and message are harrowing but compelling. The song’s lyrics are taken from a note Hiro Yamamoto’s then-girlfriend left for him one morning, “Woke up depressed, I left for work, You have a good day, good day, It’s not your fault, I know it hurts, Remember, I love you, love you…” No other band could match the raw power of those lyrics quite like Soundgarden. They excel, wringing every last ounce of dread, emotion and release out of their instruments. Cornell’s vocals are crushingly expressive. This is pure art.
“No Wrong, No Right” opens with Matt Cameron’s powerful rolling toms and Thayil’s eerie single-note strains. Cornell’s keening howl draws the listener in before the song settles into an unsettling, atmospheric groove. Yamamoto’s bass line is sinister and beautifully inventive. Thayil stabs and rips jagged discordant fills throughout, adding buckets of tension. Cornell is again on fire, using his voice like an expressive weapon.
“Uncovered” sounds positively upbeat after the captivating dirges of “I Awake” and “No Wrong, No Right.” Its jagged, bouncing riff feels joyful and vivacious. Still, though, there’s a dark core to the song; Cornell sounds weary and menacing: “Strong is your body, Strong are your bones, Strong as your bloody lie is uncovered…”
“Big Dumb Sex” is pure Spinal Tap-esque satire. It was written to parody the glam metal bands of the late ’80s who used euphemisms and innuendo to imply sexual exploits. Soundgarden, in proper comedic fashion, acted as if they were a “Butt Rock” band who didn’t understand how to be euphemistic. Guitarist Kim Thayil said: “We thought we’d ditch all the euphemisms and say what all those bands had been trying to say for a decade. It’s a parody of the whole genre of stupid rock.” Because the song uses the F-word thirty-five times, it never had a chance to get played on the radio alongside its “Butt Rock” compatriots. It also landed the album with a parental advisory sticker.
Louder Than Love ends with “Full On (Reprise),” a more bluesy, soulful take on the “Kevin” incident of “Full On Kevin’s Mom.” This time, the only lyrics are “Full On Kevin’s Mom” and “Mommy.”
On Louder Than Love, Soundgarden hit so many highs. Chris Cornell was truly one of a kind. Throughout his career, he delivered one incredible performance after another on record. But it could be easily argued his most expressive and powerful was on Louder Than Love. Hardly anywhere else in the Soundgarden back catalogue does Cornell invest himself so deeply in the character of each song. Like a method actor, his voice on this album contorts and shifts in timbre and tone to match the intent and mood of each song, word, phrase and emotion.
The band also play with incredible dexterity, swinging from atmospheric soundscapes to barrelling rockers, sometimes within a single verse. Soundgarden sounded like no one else, and no one sounded like Soundgarden. The band always had an uncanny ability to make alien time signatures sound completely normal (until you try to play them or dance to them). The band mastered this for the first time on Louder Than Love.
Soundgarden hit their stride with this album and never looked back. It’s an album that’s sometimes overlooked due to it being in the shadow of two behemoths, Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. But it’s an album that deserves as much attention and praise. Its cover image by legendary Seattle photographer Charles Peterson sums up this era of the band. Mysterious and dark, a shirtless Cornell with his face hidden behind a mop of flailing hair, grubby work pants and boots, and a filthy stage floor. It was worlds away from the manufactured glitz of the Hollywood strip. Yet it was far, far more beautiful and vital.