The haunting, traumatic story behind Soundgarden’s Superunknown
It was a sudden loud thump that changed things. Up until that moment, Chris Cornell had spent the day working on a demo in his home’s basement. He had a song brewing, but the words were eluding him as he went to investigate the strange noise upstairs. There Chris spied its grim source through a window: a female robin in its death throes. Unable to draw breath, its neck was broken after flying into the glass.
Moved by the sight of its writhing body, Chris euthanised the stricken bird with a nearby cinder block and buried its remains in his garden. When he returned to his basement, words started to come.
‘Heard it from another room’, he sang over a near 10-minute discordant jangle – his piercing voice strangely dimmed. ‘Dazed out in a garden bed, with a broken neck, lays my broken gift, just like suicide.’
The latter two words would soon become its title and the song itself the final track of Soundgarden’s classic album Superunknown. As part of its 20th anniversary deluxe reissue’s liner notes, Chris commented on how it became a metaphor for trauma he was still processing. Yes, it was literal – the lyrics detailed the plight of the robin, but they had also stirred in him some unprocessed grief for those he had lost. That included his friend, housemate and fellow musician Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone – one of the brightest stars of the nascent Seattle scene, who had died in 1990 of a heroin overdose.
Decades after writing the song, Chris stated in the reissue it was “about all of these beautiful lives around us, twice as bright and half as long, careening into walls.”
The layers of meaning here are but a microcosm of the album. Like Suicide is just one of 15 tracks that made up the record that would change Soundgarden’s career and become one of the most revered rock albums of all time. In our original 5K review of Superunknown, we recognised it as “the work of a band whose creative powers are operating at their fullest.”
It wasn’t just a critical hit, either. In the rock community’s collective conscience, it has long been maintained that grunge died almost at the exact same moment that news of Kurt Cobain’s death broke. The received wisdom is that, after such a tragic denouement, rock audiences shifted towards the upbeat sounds of Green Day and The Offspring. Yet this doesn’t tell the whole story. One of the defining bands and albums of the grunge – nee ‘Seattle Sound’ – scene didn’t experience the height of their popularity until throughout that year and 1995.
Released 25 years ago on March 8, 1994 – less than a month before Kurt’s death – Superunknown entered the charts at Number One in the U.S., went on to sell around nine million copies worldwide and even spawned an unlikely Top 20 hit. Rarely was an LP this bleak, this challenging, this musically progressive rewarded with pop star sales figures. Nor were Soundgarden used to it. It hadn’t always been this way…
Soundgarden were the first of the big grunge acts to sprout and yet the last to bloom. At least commercially. Long before Nirvana and Pearl Jam struck gold with Nevermind and Ten respectively, Soundgarden had impressed with their staggering musical intelligence – fusing punk, metal and rock with an array of bewildering time signatures and dynamics. And that was to say nothing of Chris’ voice: both sky-scraping and inimitable.
By 1991 they were drowning in critical acclaim following classic third album Badmotorfinger, but they weren’t smashing charts. Moreover, when Soundgarden toured that album supporting Guns N’ Roses, they soon found the rock world to be a divided nation. When K! interviewed them in Australia on their headline tour ahead of Superunknown’s release, they were ecstatic simply to be playing to their own fans.
“We went to Europe with Guns N’ Roses playing in front of 60,000 people who didn’t give a shit about us,” Chris reflected.
At the time of recording Superunknown in 1993, Soundgarden were a band searching for individuation: not just to distinguish themselves from every other band, but also from what they had done previously. First, they changed the way they worked.
“Someone would bring in a demo of a song they wrote, and as opposed to really concentrating on why we liked it and what it was about the original idea, we’d just sort of Soundgarden-ise it,” Chris told K! about their old method. “That can make an album sound a little more sterile.”
Their new material would be different and their musical remit would have to expand to accommodate it. Twenty tracks in total were made at Seattle’s legendary Bad Animals studio with producer Michael Beinhorn, before whittling that number down to 15.
Chris Cornell delivered big moments aplenty, including the classic singles The Day I Tried To Live and Fell On Black Days, plus frenetic opener Let Me Drown. But one of his songs would, of course, go on to eclipse the rest, at least in terms of mainstream attention. Even in the present day, the disenchanted psychedelia of Black Hole Sun remains extraordinary. Chris told Rolling Stone he saw it as a “surreal, esoteric word painting”.
Indeed, the whole album painted with an unrestricted palette. Keyboards, alternative tunings, viola, cello, spoons and, in the case of My Wave, even a nod to surf-rock were all introduced. It is, in the words of guitarist Kim Thayil speaking for a Spotify commentary on the 20th anniversary reissue, a “perfect headphones album”.
Each member made big contributions. Some of the most arresting riffs belong neither to Chris nor Kim but rather drummer Matt Cameron, who not only conceived of the central riff for Mailman but also played mellotron on it. Fresh Tendrils was another Matt composition (made even more atypical by including clavinet), and so was the rising guitar of Limo Wreck. “Our drummer came up with that,” gushed Kim.
Two of the album’s most unique songs came courtesy of bassist Ben Shepherd. The disembodied, twisting strains of Head Down was his creation, as was the Indian music-influenced Half. Chris even refused to sing on the latter, insisting that it would lose its character without Ben’s voice.
Kim Thayil not only served up the surging, punky Kickstand, as you would expect, he augmented songs brilliantly, adding compelling layers and riffs. Most stunning
of all was his standout solo on Like Suicide.
Soundgarden didn’t shy away from the molten noise that had defined them, either. On 4th Of July – inspired by Chris’ LSD trip on an Indian reservation – they arguably delivered their heaviest moment.
When all of the above was put together in the studio, Soundgarden had recorded an album that fit their own adventurous brief and was set to confound expectations.
“There has been much rumour about Superunknown… the dreaded word ‘commercial’ has been bandied about,” reported K! ahead of its release. “It’s far from commercial, but it’s not Badmotorfinger 2.”
As its legacy would attest, this was something else entirely.
It was on a sunny evening in London’s Hyde Park on – what else? – July 4 in 2014 that Soundgarden played their final UK show.
“We may never do this again,” remarked Chris Cornell, addressing the audience as the band set about playing Superunknown for its 20th anniversary celebration. What was telling on that day is just how well the album had aged. Take Mailman, for instance.
“This next song is a narrative coming from a U.S. postal service worker,” said Chris. “They do their job wonderfully. They wear little shorts in the summer, they’re courteous, they’re careful, they’re nice to dogs, and then every once in a while they go into a post office and shoot every single co-worker they ever met. Other than that, though, their jobs are done in exemplary fashion.”
The theme of the song has only gained further resonance since then. Superunknown’s songs influenced the next generation, too. Everyone from Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington to The Pretty Reckless’ Taylor Momsen would draw inspiration from it. But while its artistic and commercial success cannot be overstated, nor can the effect it had on its own creators.
“It was the pinnacle of our career, but we had difficult things going on,” Kim Thayil told K! in 2012. “[The death of] Kurt was heavy and upsetting for us. Some of us had relationships falter, and we lost some other friends, too. We were dealing with personal loss while trying to grasp at professional success. I don’t know if we ever fully appreciated it.”
Soundgarden soon unravelled after their mainstream breakthrough. They would release one more (excellent) album, 1996’s Down On The Upside, before imploding. Though it took 16 years before they would release 2012’s King Animal, even in that protracted absence, Superunknown remained omnipresent in rock’s collective conscience.
Much of it was dark, articulating themes of loss, depression and isolation with unflinching grace and a searing poetic edge. Reflecting with Rolling Stone in 2012, Chris – who had always been so allergic to nostalgia – reappraised their masterpiece.
“There’s an eeriness in there, a kind of unresolvable sadness or indescribable longing that I’ve never really tried to isolate and define and fully understand,” he said. “But it’s always there. It’s like a haunted thing.”
In light of the tragedy of his passing in 2017, it is perhaps now more haunting than ever. The loss of Chris Cornell – and, indeed, of Soundgarden – is one rock fans will mourn greatly. But such grief should also be tempered by the undiminished power of their music. ‘Alive in the Superunknown,’ Chris bellowed on the title-track’s chorus. So he was then. So he shall remain.
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