May 21st, 1996, SOUNDGARDEN released Down On The Upside through A&M Records. By 1996, Soundgarden had reached the highs they were destined for. They were always trailblazers, displaying a fiercely original streak; the band’s creativity seemed limitless, fresh and inspiring right from their inception in 1984.

Thus far, their storied career had been a consistently hair-raising upward trajectory. Debut EP’s Screaming Life and Fopp were vivid, feral screams from the underground, life-affirming in their nascent power and originality. The debut album Ultramega OK built on their savage musical drama, adding new layers to their gilt-edged sound. Major label debut Louder Than Love showcased a newfound confidence as the band’s songwriting became even more sturdy, robust and divine.

This run would have exhausted the creativity of most bands. Those who heard Louder Than Love in 1989 and awed at its evident brilliance could hardly have imagined the band were only getting started. What came next was a stunning burst of artistry. 1991’s Badmotorfinger was a clarion call, an album so rich, diverse, and beautifully realised it left many rock music fans astounded. No one sounded like Soundgarden, mainly because no one could sound like Soundgarden. After its release, the band hoovered up new fans flocking to the alter of alternative rock.

But still, despite the legions of new fans, a back catalogue of breathtaking quality and enough credibility to power a continent. Soundgarden found themselves trailing their hometown contemporaries regarding mass mainstream acceptance. Nirvana and Pearl Jam had gone stratospheric with the release of Nevermind and Ten, and Alice In Chains were on the tip of every rock fan’s tongue after the enormous success of the “Man In The Box” single and albums Facelift and Dirt.

Those who lived it in real time can attest to Soundgarden’s “bubbling under” status as the “grunge” movement took hold. While Badmotorfinger hadn’t attained the sales figures Nevermind, Ten, or Dirt did, it was a striking reminder that this band is the absolute truth, the standard bearers who forged the way long before Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains struck a single note in anger.

It was with 1994’s Superunknown that Soundgarden got their due, and it was no sympathy vote, either. Instead, the band delivered an album for the ages. Topping Badmotorfinger seemed like an impossible conquest, but Soundgarden took it in their collective stride. Here was a band that had effortlessly shifted up through the gears, pushing the limits of their artistry. They took the stunning, brutal beauty of Badmotorfinger and shot it through a kaleidoscope of imagination, individuality and expressiveness. The outcome was truly astounding. With the staggering crossover hit “Black Hole Sun,” capturing the zeitgeist, Superunknown catapulted Soundgarden into the big leagues.

Come 1996, times were changing. The juggernauts of the early ’90s were ceding ground to the encroaching din of pop-punk and nu-metal. Following Superunknown’s titanic mainstream breakthrough and tour, Soundgarden regrouped to begin work on its follow-up. Recording sessions for the album took place between November 1995 and February 1996 at Studio Litho and Bad Animals Studios in Seattle, with the band choosing to produce the album themselves for the first time in their career.

Opening with the psychedelic intro riff of “Pretty Noose,” Down On The Upside immediately feels like a familiar old blanket. Everything is in place: Kim Thayil’s wah, the sprawling psychedelic flourishes, the off-kilter time signatures and Chris Cornell’s banshee wail. “Pretty Noose” sounds like a band entirely in control of their abilities.

“Rhinosaur” is a Matt Cameron composition packed with bristling, odd-time changes and cascading riffs. It’s an elemental formula to Soundgarden’s DNA that always feels fresh and exciting. “Zero Chance” blends acoustic and electric guitars on top of a gliding, sophisticated soundscape. Chris Cornell’s haunting refrain of “They say if you look hard / You’ll find your way back home / Born without a friend, And bound to die alone” is a goosebump-inducing emotional trip.

“Dusty” is a swampy blues that again brings the acoustic guitars to the fore. It’s a hazy-groove-laden head-nodder full of vivid imagery and atmosphere. What distinguishes Down On The Upside from its predecessors is its sonic departure. 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; adding acoustic textures throughout, the band seek to expand their soundscape ever further.

“Ty Cobb” follows, its intro teasing the acoustic guitar textures that permeate the opening batch of songs; there’s even a banjo thrown in for good measure. The band quickly dispenses with the downhome instrumentation, igniting the song into a raging punk fireball of shredded electric guitars and white knuckle drumming. Cornell’s caustic roars of “Hardheaded fuck you all” are incendiary.

“Burden In My Hand” is positively upbeat in comparison. Cornell sings, “Follow me/ into the desert / as thirsty as you are” like the Pied Piper over a resonator guitar strum. An astonishing bassline from Ben Shepherd underpins the drums’ tumbling roll and the guitars’ percussive chromatic attack.

Despite the lighter touch, Down On The Upside is rawer. Had the band employed an outside producer, this raw edge would likely have been removed. But the band chose to leave things as organic, dissonant, and open as possible, benefiting the album’s overall tone and timbre.

“Never Named” has an infectious, upbeat punk feel, albeit pushed through the Soundgarden meatgrinder. A meditation on how we seem to grow smaller as our world expands, Cornell opens with, “I had a dog / He was a mix / He loved me like a God / But I was just a kid.” Later, he adds, “I got my father’s sense / And my big brother’s pants / And I look like a man / And I feel like an ant.”

“Blow Up The Outside World” continues the Beatles-esque songwriting displayed on Superunknown’s mega-hit “Black Hole Sun,” albeit a lot darker 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.

The sinister beauty of “Applebite” opens like something that flowed from the mind of trip-hop savant Tricky. Murky, mercurial, and caked in an ominous blanket of dread, its clean plucked guitar motifs recall the band’s Louder Than Love era output, particularly that album’s brooding masterpiece “I Awake.” “Applebite” is a gloriously hypnotic song that reveals new textures and hooks on repeat listens.

The claustrophobic behemoth “Never The Machine Forever” is a mid-album palate cleanser. The song’s lyrics and music were written by guitarist Kim Thayil, who, in the album’s liner notes, credits former Mother Love Bone drummer Greg Gilmore as “inspiration” for the song. Ben Shepherd’s low-slung bass thump opens the song as the band kicks in with a hectic stumbling set of riffs. It’s a gargantuan thrill ride.

“Tighter and Tighter” harks back to Soundgarden circa Louder Than Love and Ultramega OK. Its heavy bluesy riffs and Black Sabbath vibes are a welcome reminder of the band’s earlier output. Cornell is breathy and soulful throughout. Thayil’s passionate blues leads are heartfelt and emotionally profound, never reverting to hackneyed cliché.

“No Attention” rips with savage intent. A punk thrasher, the song freewheels into intense psychedelic workouts and pummelling bombast in the blink of an eye. On an album of considerable heft and duration, Soundgarden saved some of the best songs for last. “Switch Opens” is an often overlooked Soundgarden classic; its widescreen atmosphere is open and uplifting. “Overfloater” is a gorgeously brooding journey that gathers in untamed intensity and muscle before freefalling back into its languid malaise, only to rise again with crushing authority.

“An Unkind” is a flat-out stunning piece of rock songwriting. Written by bassist Ben Shepherd, who had proved over and over what an indispensable asset he was to the band since joining before the recording of Badmotorfinger. His unique songwriting centres around his ability to find new ways to deliver a profoundly fresh and imaginative rock song using the oldest format of all: guitar, bass and drums.

The album closes with “Boot Camp.” Cornell muses, “There must be something else / There must be something good / Far away from here.” The band swells and breathes, soundtracking what sounds like a fall through space, blissful and serene as the world hurtles past. Cornell sings of something exciting far away from here but offers, “I’ll be here for good.” It’s a heartbreaking way to end Soundgarden’s triumphant march through the 1990s.

Tension within the band grew during the recording, but those same tensions are a significant reason the album worked so well. Thayil retrospectively claimed that the album has a “dual nature” and “keeps listeners on their toes.” Rumour has it that Thayil and Cornell were at loggerheads over the band’s sonic direction 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, Ben Shepherd’s claim that “Down on the Upside” was the most accurate picture of what Soundgarden “actually sounds like” might be valid. It’s an album that puts Soundgarden’s inquisitive nature front and centre, it takes risks, and it has elements of their past and glimpses of their future. But ultimately, Down On The Upside was their undoing. The band called it quits after the album’s tour cycle in 1997.

The album closed the book on the first part of Soundgarden’s journey. The band would eventually reform and release the stunning King Animal in 2012, picking up where Down On The Upside left off as if the intervening years of inactivity never happened.

Soundgarden’s recorded output from 1987 to 1996 is a startling collection of high-art, adventurous musicality and some of the best rock songwriting ever committed to tape. Individually, each member was immensely talented; collectively, they were lightning in a bottle. When Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron, and Ben Shepherd stood side by side, their sound crumbled mountains, parted seas and soared above all comers. Their chemistry was undeniable; their musicianship beyond doubt.