This is a thing I haven’t done in a long time. I last did this in 2014 for Cloud Nothing’s then newly released album Here and Nowhere Else. You can read that. I did another for Mac DeMarco’s Salad Days too. I was planning to do this for another album earlier this year, though for whatever reason just didn’t get to it. For the past few weeks though, the album that’s been on my mind is Soundgarden’s 1996 effort Down on the Upside.
The album’s been in my music library for quite some time now, but it’s only very recently that I listened to the whole thing again and realised just how brilliant it is. It was maybe around 2015 that I watched the video for ‘Pretty Noose’ one day – for what reason I can’t really remember now – and the track immediately became one that I would sing in the shower or hum out loud during idle moments. That song is the first on Down on the Upside, starting the proceedings off with its slimy riff from Kim Thayil and setting the tone for the rest of what’s to follow.
I downloaded the album soon after. I listened to it through all 16 tracks though nothing really stuck. Some months after ‘Rhinosaur‘ suddenly jumped out at me. That’s the second track on the album. With its music written by drummer Matt Cameron, ‘Rhinosaur’ features these ascending and descending riffs and licks that culminate into a stampede of a breakdown two thirds of the way through. It’s a really groovy track, almost funky in some ways, but a thrilling one overall. Takes you in different directions before throwing you all over the room. That was an instant add to the phone too.
And it stayed that way for a while. ‘Pretty Noose’ and ‘Rhinosaur’ were the golden two. I never paid much attention to the other fourteen songs that the album offered. Chris Cornell died in May last year and the first thing to do, like many others, was listen to the man’s music. Down on the Upside was still there in my library so why not listen to it once more? Surely there would be another track that I had been missing out on for all that time. There were riffs here and that were definitely pleasing… though that was it. I could recognise that there was something good about it all though it never really stuck.
That has all changed. I’m actually convinced that the album may be Soundgarden’s greatest. Now I know that the consensus is that Superunknown is the band’s opus, though there are some tracks on there that I can’t vibe to that well. Down on the Upside however provides almost every side of Soundgarden – the heavy side, the lighter side, the surreal side, the realist aspect. They are all combined to provide Soundgarden at their essence, which is probably what made it so suitable as their final album for all those years.
What was always so great about Soundgarden was that all four band members brought something to the table. It wasn’t a function where the lead singer held everyone to his beck and call; if any member has a piece of music or a lyric that could be worked on, the four of them would work together to create great compositions.
Matt Cameron who as aforementioned wrote the music for ‘Rhinosaur’ did the same for the ninth track ‘Applebite’, a stirring almost psychedelic song that becomes more intense as time goes on, aided by Cornell’s heavily masked ghostly vocals. Kim Thayil had less songwriting credits here than on previous albums, though the one track he completely wrote (‘Never the Machine Forever’) is a monstrous behemoth, complete with cinematic guitar riffs in odd time signatures and another captivating vocal performance from Cornell. Ben Shepherd, the band’s bassist, worked on six out of the 16 tracks on the album and it’s those songs (‘Zero Chance’, ‘Dusty’, ‘Ty Cobb’, ‘Never Named’, ‘Switch Opens’, ‘An Unkind’) that are highlights for me. Particularly ‘Switch Opens’ which, with lyrics written by Cornell, seems to signify a time of change, rising up and taking action.
The album is not as heavy as Superunknown. When I listen to each track I’m heavily reminded of the desert and sand, there’s just something about the music that gives me that imagery. It’s not just because those two things are mentioned in ‘Burden in My Hand’ either. There are some songs which make me feel like I’m in the same blacked out/spark lit room that the four members are in on the album cover. It’s a lot more acoustic but still grimey in its delivery. Much more groovier and less thrashy. Technically complex in terms of guitar tunings and time signatures but very melodically accessible. Every song has it for you.
I don’t want to say it in risk of possibly offending, but there’s something almost country about some parts of the album. I can already sense the ‘what’ reactions coming from anyone reading this. I know. I’m not referring to country music like…. Florida Georgia Line or…. Billy Ray Cyrus or something. (Those are my best examples). But surely you could listen to ‘Dusty’and its main riff that chugs along during the verses, or that little lick that occurs in ‘Zero Chance’….. even ‘Blow Up the Outside World’ in some ways, and consider that there’s something there? It’s my interpretation anyway. Though I think it’s the lighter direction the band seemed to be heading in that built some creative differences between bandmembers and resulted in their initial split in 1997.
It’s a real shame that Chris Cornell died. Soundgarden were in the middle of a tour when he did, and there was talk that they were working on a new album at the time. As for now Soundgarden are still a band albeit not doing anything at the moment understandably. I do hope that when it comes to 2021 that Cameron, Thayil, and Shepherd could get together to work on a 25th anniversary remaster of Down on the Upside. It definitely deserves one.