Released in March 1994, Soundgarden’s breakthrough fourth album came at the tail-end of the grunge movement, before Nu-Metal took over in the States and Britpop briefly reigned in the UK. Looking back now, it feels like grunge began with Nirvana and ended with Kurt Cobain’s suicide, such was the impact the troubled icon’s band had on the music scene. Yet, fellow Seattleites Soundgraden could lay claim to being one of the true progenitors of grunge: they were already releasing their own Sabbath-influenced sub-metal before Bleach was even on the shelves and Superunknown would prove to be a far superior record to Nirvana’s brutal swansong In Utero, released six months earlier. It was an album that brought grunge-rock to a new level but, crucially, was not the sound of a band selling out: the lyrical references to depression and general existential dread put paid to that. One month after its release, Cobain was dead but Soundgarden’s inexorable rise culminated in Superunknown’s success, which would go on to debut at number one on the Billboard charts and rack up millions of sales worldwide.
Listening to the record twenty years on doesn’t bring back bittersweet memories of youthful abandon that say ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ or ‘Even Flow’ might do. While retaining their visceral power, those songs remain rooted in a certain time and place while Superunknown still sounds vital in 2014. Opening track ‘Let Me Drown’ booms out of the traps, a fearsome statement of intent that encapsulates everything that is to come, which is urgent, tightly-woven rock that rarely flags throughout the album’s 71 – minute running time. ‘My Wave’ continues the ethos on which grunge was built: turn up the guitars but don’t forget the melody. So underneath the twin assault of Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell’s snarling guitars, hummable pop-hooks still reign. And the album is full of hooks, aided by the frontman’s four-octave vocal range. The better-known singles still sound like they were dreamt up yesterday: the doom-laden, yet Beatles-esque, ‘Black Hole Sun’ and the just-keeping-it-together melancholy of ‘Fell On Black Days’. ‘Spoonman’ brings some welcome light relief amidst the gloomy worldview.
This super-deluxe 20th-anniversary reissue inevitably comes with the usual superfluous amount of completist-only remixes, b-sides, demos, rehearsals and remixes. It’s interesting to compare the early forms of some of the songs with the finished versions but, to be blunt, life’s too short to spend too much time with these offcuts. In truth, they take some of the mystery away from the creative process, like listening to a film director revealing his tricks on a DVD commentary. The original masterpiece, in all its remastered glory, will suffice.