Certain Songs #883: Soundgarden – “Superunknown”

Album: Superunknown
Year: 1994

I have a special fondness for some of the records that came out in the spring and summer of 1994, as I was making my move from Fresno. It was a huge, scary step to completely abandon my scene, my family and my comfort zone for who knows what? So the records that I really liked from that period — Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Live Through This, Vauxhall & I and Superunknown — are ones that always take me back to that time.

So I’m going to pour one out today for the newly-deceased Chris Cornell, whose preternatural voice barreled out of the speakers of my VW Fox more than once while driving back and forth from Fresno to Oakland, as I was already sleeping on Andrea & Suzi’s couch in Oakland during the weekdays while coming back to Fresno each weekend to get more stuff from my apartment in the Tower while wondering just the hell I was doing anyways?

I hadn’t expected to like Superunknown so much. Despite my love for Guns N’ Roses, I thought I was pretty much done with metal, even grunge-metal, and the 1980s Soundgarden records didn’t to anything for me, so I completely ignored Badmotorfinger during the adrenaline rush that was 1991’s generational breakthrough from the underground.

But I took a chance on Superunknown. I don’t even remember why. Certainly my love for “Hunger Strike” played a part. Probably a slew of great reviews combined with finding a used copy at Ragin or Rasputin’s. And I was blown away. Blown away by Kim Thayil’s deadly riffs. Blown away by Matt Cameron’s massive drum parts. Blown away by Ben Shephard’s psychedelic songs.

But mostly I was blown away by the depth and emotion that Chris Cornell brought to every single song, especially the title track, which is still one of my very very favorite songs to come out of the 1990s.

Over Thayil’s swirling tornado of a riff, Cornell unleashes words that could about drugs, but are definitely about dealing with a high level of confusion an self-doubt.

If this isn’t what you see
It doesn’t make you blind
Yea, if this doesn’t make you feel
It doesn’t mean you’ve died

And the tornado contained into massive riffs and the whole band hyperfocused, again and again, they barrel into the chorus,

Alive in the superunknown
Alive in the superunknown
Alive in the superunknown
First it steals your mind and then it steals your

I’m not doing it justice: Cornell extends the last word of each line, transforming each verse into an almost operatic howl of pain and worry that only something as beautiful as his voice can combat. It’s an absolutely remarkable performance, and even as Thayil’s shooting fireworks off from his guitar during the solo, Cornell is screaming at the void, gathering himself for one last epic run at the chorus.

Alive in the superunknown
Alive in the superunknown
Alive in the superunknown
Alive in the superunknown
Alive in the superunknown
Alive in the superunknown
Alive in the superunknown
Alive in the superunknown

On the back half of that final chorus, Cameron stops crashing against beat and leans into it full throttle, and at that point “Superunknown” takes on an almost unstoppable momentum as an army of Cornells chant “Alive in the superunknown” over and over again until he shuts it all down to worry about losing not just his mind but his soulllllllllllllllllllllll.

Alive in the superunknown. It’s such an evocative phrase, and came at exactly at the right time for me to have playing in my head on a continuous loop throughout that entire summer turning previous disdain for Soundgarden into utter fascination. I know I almost instantly went back and got Badmotorfinger, and even Louder Than Love (loved the former, not so much the latter), and played the shit outta Down on The Upside when it came out a couple of years later.

I’ll get to all of that when I get to Soundgarden properly in a couple of years. Today, I just wanted to say “thank you” to Chris Cornell, whose amazing voice helped me through a period where I was entering the superunknown.

“Superunknown”

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