Pros:Heavy, diverse, memorable
The Bottom Line: With Superunknown, Soundgarden tried new styles and came out with a classic.
Simultaneously staying mainstream while experimenting with strange new sounds is a difficult feat for most rock bands, but Soundgarden was clearly up to the challenge. Their fourth album, 1994’s Superunknown, has the band trading in some of the punk and metal influences of their past work and going for psychedelic, strange sounds and a variety of themes including death, drugs, and the suffocation of daily life. Despite the wide range of musical influences, the band managed to put it all together into a hard rock album that stayed distinctly Soundgarden, solidified the band as a ‘90s staple, and remains a classic years later.
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Soundgarden already had some huge hits under their belt from their previous album Badmotorfinger, but Superunknown spawned even more. The biggest is the surreal, psychedelic rocker “Black Hole Sun.” Its sunny verses give way to a swirling, menacing chorus, making it one of the ‘90s’ most unmistakable classics. “Fell On Black Days” and “The Day I Tried to Live” have also demonstrated staying power thanks to their tremendous slow builds, complete with passionate, wall-crumbling vocal performances from Chris Cornell. They also bring out the pure rock on faster, punchy tracks like “Spoonman” and the fun “My Wave.” All five of these songs reveal Soundgarden’s knack for scoring big hits with songs that are anything but ordinary.
Beyond those megahits, however, are plenty of excellent songs that make this album an entirely enjoyable piece of rock. One of Soundgarden’s best hidden gems is “4th of July.” This slow, dark, doom rocker chugs along, describing an LSD trip but sounding downright apocalyptic: “I heard it in in the wind / And I saw it in the sky / And I thought it was the end / I thought it was the 4th of July.” Tracks like “Head Down” and closer “Like Suicide” - which give Kim Thayil one last moment to shine with his brilliant, wailing guitar work - bring on a similarly weighty, dramatic feel. Others like intense opener “Let Me Drown,” the rip-roaring title track, and the crunchy “Mailman” provide the meaty metal that set Soundgarden apart from many of its peers. They show even more versatility by delivering punkish speed with the minute-and-a-half “Kickstand” in one breath and taking on an Indian-influenced style in “Half.”
While much of Superunknown trades in the muscular metal of Badmotorfinger, it also takes that album’s darkness, inventiveness, and guitar brilliance and pushes it to new heights. At seventy minutes, you get your money’s worth and then some with Superunknown. It’s a landmark album of the 1990s and should be studied by any young rock fan looking for inspiration.