March 8th 1994, Soundgarden released their fourth full-length studio album, Superunknown, through A&M Records. The album was a critical and commercial success and became the band’s breakthrough album, debuting at number one on the Billboard 200.

Superunknown wasn’t just a highly anticipated album from a critically acclaimed rock band; its multi-platinum success and Grammy wins almost made it feel predestined. This was the band’s long overdue turn to come out on top. Soundgarden 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 created on their terms. The band didn’t pander to anyone’s notion of artistic success but their own, never sacrificing their metallic edge, the skewed, off-kilter time signatures, or the lyrical and musical individuality that stood them head and shoulders above the competition.

While Badmotorfinger sold significantly and added legions of new fans to their ranks, it didn’t achieve the crossover success of Nirvana’s Nevermind or Pearl Jam’s Ten. By early 1994, the playing field had changed considerably. Though Pearl Jam was still one of the most popular rock bands 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 amid 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 the other Seattle bands. I thought it was great. But all of us would have to prove that we could also exist with autonomy. We deserved to be playing on an international stage and 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 that 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 creatively exhausted after delivering 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.

The band began work on the album about two months after finishing its stint on the 1992 Lollapalooza tour. The individual members would work on material independently and then bring in demos to which the other band members would contribute. Recording took place from July 1993 to September 1993 at Bad Animals Studio in Seattle, Washington, with Michael Beinhorn producing and Bad Animals’ resident engineer Adam Kasper assisting the recording process.

Superunknown is a sprawling record spanning grunge, alternative metal, stoner rock, and psychedelia, shot through with a pop sensibility that makes it one of the most accessible, creative and infectious rock albums of the ’90s. Kicking off with “Let Me Drown,” its driving chromatic riff pulsating on top of Matt Cameron’s insistent beat. Chris Cornell intones, “Stretch the bones over my skin, Stretch the skin over my head, I’m going to the holy land.”

“My Wave” follows. It is a song that freely slips between time signatures. Predominantly in 5/4, a particularly irregular time signature for rock music, the song changes to 4/4 and 9/8, then back again numerous times. Soundgarden was so skilled as songwriters and arrangers that these tempo juxtapositions, so prominent throughout their catalogue, always sounded fluid and coherent.

“Fell On Black Days” is beautifully sombre. Written by Cornell, the song showcases the dark, melancholy beauty at the heart of the band’s songwriting. Its inception was laborious. The band recorded several versions of the song with entirely different musical backdrops before settling on the version that made the album. Ben Shepherd’s bass lines are extraordinary, adding an ominous undercurrent that perfectly matches the lyrical themes. 

“‘Fell on Black Days’ was like this ongoing fear I’ve had for years,” Cornell recalled, “It’s a feeling that everyone gets. You’re happy with your life; everything’s going well, and things are exciting—when all of a sudden, you realize you’re unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being scared. There’s no particular event you can pin the feeling down to; it’s just that you realize one day that everything in your life is fucked!”

“Mailman” is filled with existential dread, while its glacial riff threatens to explode in feedback at every turn. The title track is an infectious, hook-laden romp with a tangled riff viewed through a psychedelic prism. Cornell shoots the song’s uplifting chorus skyward with the refrain, “Alive in the Superunknown. First, it steals your mind, and then it steals your soul…” 

“Head Down” is a trippy, jangly, somewhat psychedelic glide through the mind of writer Ben Shepherd. When Shepherd joined Soundgarden in 1991, he brought a new approach to writing and recording. Ben’s use of strange alternate tunings complimented the band’s use of odd time signatures and penchant for psychedelic flourishes. Shepherd’s brilliance came to the fore on Superunknown. Amid the heaviness, they created a modern-day Revolver with flashes of melodic Beatle-esque moments. 

“Head Down was a complete demo Ben had played for me,” recalled Chris Cornell. “He was singing on it, and it’s very similar to what ended up on the record. That was an amazing moment because it was one of those times when I felt like, “This must be what it was like to be in the Beatles,” where one of the band members walks in and drops a song like that ­— it’s already done, and you don’t have to do anything, you already know it’s going to be one of the best songs on the album.”

When released as the fourth single from the album, “Black Hole Sun” topped the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart for seven weeks. 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 something wrong. I heard ‘blah blah blah black hole sun blah blah’. I thought, ‘That would make an amazing song title,’ It all came together, pretty much the whole arrangement, including the guitar solo played beneath the riff.”

“I spent a lot of time spinning those melodies in my head so I wouldn’t forget them. When I got home, I whistled them into a Dictaphone. The next day, I brought them 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.”

“Spoonman”, featuring Artis The Spoonman in what might be the first and only spoon solo on a chart-topping rock album, was the first single. The song was initially written for the soundtrack to the 1992 film Singles. At that time, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were working on the soundtrack. Pearl Jam’s bassist, Jeff Ament, had been tasked with creating the name for a fictional band that would appear in the film. Before finally choosing Citizen Dick, Ament had compiled a list of potential names, which included “Spoonman”.

Chris Cornell eventually used the names on the list to create songs for the film. An early, acoustic version of “Spoonman” can be heard during a scene in the movie in which a poster advertising a Citizen Dick show is stapled to a light post. The name was inspired by Artis the Spoonman, a street performer from Santa Cruz, California, and later Seattle, Washington. 

Superunknown producer Michael Beinhorn recalls recording Artis The Spoonman on the Spoonman sessions: “It was one of the most memorable events I’ve ever had. He shows up at the studio with this, like, bedroll or something like that, and he opens it up, and it’s just all these metallic implements, and we’re like, ‘What the hell does he do with this?'”

“So we set up mics to ambiently mic him – I think it was a pair of 67s – and he said, ‘Make sure you got a video camera rolling; you’re going to want to see this.’ The song starts, he takes his shirt off, he starts picking random bits of metal and beating the shit out of himself, like, all over the place with the spoons and everything else.”

“It was incredible. Everyone was sitting in the control room, watching this – we’ve never seen anything like it. He was literally beating himself hard with these bits of metal; I’m not kidding. And we did about five takes. There was blood everywhere. He was cutting himself up doing it. I have never heard the term ‘suffer for your art’ underscored with more acuity than that. It was amazing.”

“Limo Wreck” is a devastating Sabbath-esque powerhouse. “The Day I Tried To Live” is eerie and pummelling with its descending chromatic riff and blissed-out, hazy slide guitar passages. While “Kickstand” is a blazing two-minute punk blast written by Kim Thayil. 

Matt Cameron’s “Fresh Tendrils” is one of the highlights of an album packed with gems. The clavinet playing of Natasha Shneider of the band Eleven compliments its odd but incredibly catchy guitar riff. Cornell’s vocals perfectly balance understated menace with wide-open passion as he sings, “Shame, Shame, throw yourself away. Give me little bits of more than I can take if it sits upon your tongue or naked in your eyes. Give me little bits of more than I can try. Throw yourself away.”

Chris Cornell wrote “4th of July” after an acid trip. Speaking to RIP Magazine in 1994, Cornell recalled. “One time, I was on acid, and there were voices ten feet behind my head. They’d be talking behind me the whole time I’d be walking. It made me feel good because I was with some people. At one point, I looked back, and I saw that one person was wearing a black shirt and jeans, and the other was wearing a red shirt.”

“They were always there. It was like a dream, though, where I’d wake up, look and focus once in a while, and realize there was no one there. I’d go, ‘Oh, fuck, I’m hearing voices.'” Cornell adds, “‘4th of July’ is pretty much about that day. You wouldn’t get that if you read it. It doesn’t read like, ‘Woke up, dropped some acid, got into the car and went to the Indian reservation.”

“4th Of July” is the sound of planets colliding in slow motion. It’s a masterful song with epic scope, depth and glacial heaviness. “Half” was written and sung by Ben Shepherd. It’s almost Zappa-esque, with odd time signatures and playful whimsy before dissolving into a serene, blissful outro. The album ends with the beautiful “Like Suicide.” 

Chris Cornell revealed in 1994 to Melody Maker the disturbing incident that inspired the song’s lyrics. “I was writing the music to ‘Like Suicide’ in my basement when I heard this loud thump from above. I thought someone was trying to break in, so I was going up the stairs to investigate when I heard it again – a loud THUMP!”

“When I got to the door, this beautiful female robin was writhing on the ground. She’d broken her neck flying into the window. It was obviously broken, flipped back, but she was still breathing.” Cornell put the hapless bird out of its misery. He continues, “Then I went back downstairs, and with the title of that song in mind, I just wrote about the incident.” 

Despite the title, the song has nothing to do with suicide. Superunknown was released a month before Kurt Cobain took his own life, which caused many Nirvana fans to analyze his lyrics for premonitions. Chris Cornell was sometimes asked about this, and he made it clear that looking for suicidal thoughts in song lyrics was hopeless.

The depth and scope of Superunknown is staggering. Rarely do bands tap into such a rich vein of creativity and experimentation while imbuing their work with lasting hooks that deliver thrilling twists and turns. The musicianship is exceptional; each member brings an abundance of inventiveness while delivering emotionally expressive performances. These attributes elevate each song to astonishing heights. Superunknown is the sound of a band working at the peak of its powers.

Cameron, Cornell, Shepherd, and Thayil together as Soundgarden were truly lightning in a bottle. Four immensely talented and focused individuals became a force of nature as a unit. The depth of Soundgarden’s creativity, originality, and abilities is staggering. Superunknown is a crowning achievement in a career full of them.