Milestones: Superunknown

[Our series of posts on albums, movies, etc. which celebrate significant anniversaries this year continues with this one. -KJ]




The first to sign with a major label but the last of the big ‘90s Seattle bands to break on through to the mainstream, Soundgarden’s early material is not that far removed from the tunes that made them the rock gods they briefly were. Whether their initial offerings Ultramega OK and the Grammy-nominated Louder Than Love—what a great title!—have aged well is a moot point. They are both—as is the entire Soundgarden catalog, for that matter—highly representative products and artifacts of their specific time and place, and as such should hold up to both scrutiny and repeated listenings. Of course, your mileage may vary.

That said, the kind of subtlety, nuance and attention to detail that characterizes Superunknown, their fourth and best known album, was never implied before. Certainly not on their first two full-length releases and not on their breakthrough 1991 disc, Badmotorfinger, despite that album’s marked improvement in every aspect over the band’s previous work. Soundgarden’s sound was at the intersection where Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and punk rock meet. On Superunknown they deftly added elements of pop and psychedelia and put together what is widely recognized as the best hard rock record of the decade.

And when you listen closely to this 70-minute, tour de force you can sense that the band knew it was onto something; that their songwriting had turned a corner and the need to make a lasting musical statement was in the air. However, a non-sympathetic ear in the studio could've changed the course of the album in irreparable ways. Luckily, former Material keyboardist Michael Bienhorn would be enlisted to flesh out the band’s sound with a panoramic, accessible production that brought out and featured Soundgarden’s best sonic qualities.

As for the songs themselves, the singles “Spoonman”, “Fell On Black Days”, “Alive in the Superunknown” and of course, the crossover pop hit “Black Hole Sun” were all an inescapable part of the mid-‘90s MTV-watching, radio-listening experience. But an album of this depth offers plentiful rewards, especially over time: in addition to the above, the plaintive “Like Suicide”; the defiant “My Wave”; drummer Matt Cameron’s “Mailman” with its dirgy, psychedelic Sabbath undertones; and the apocalyptic “4th of July”, are all a big part of what makes Superunknown a landmark record, offering up a widescreen view of this important hard rock quartet at the height of its powers.