Recently it was announced that Soundgarden's Superunknown was getting a 20th anniversary reissue release. With that release coming up in just a few months, it seemed appropriate to take a listen and reflect on the classic album.
In 1993, for Soundgarden's fourth record, the band decided to switch producers. After working with Terry Date on previous releases, they went with Michael Beinhorn for album four. Beinhorn had worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers on a couple of releases and also helped Herbie Hancock pen his hit "Rockit." Working with Beinhorn proved to be a wise move for Soundgarden because together they ended up creating one of the best albums of the 90's and one of the best albums in the history of alternative rock.
Since working on Superunknown, Beinhorn went on to work with the likes of Hole, Social Distortion, Ozzy Osbourne, The Verve Pipe, Korn, Lovedrug, and Fuel. There's no doubt that he's produced some amazing albums over the years with Superunknown and Fuel's Natural Selection being personal favorites. More recently, Beinhorn runs a really cool blog called How to Save Popular Music. You can read that here. Beinhorn has a lot of thoughts on the business side of music that he writes about, but one of his more recent posts was considerably more relevant for a broader audience. He mentioned how music doesn't have the power to connect to people anymore the way it used to. It's rare to find something now, listen to it, then have your mind blown. That happened to people when Beinhorn was working in his prime and he and Soundgarden created a mind-blowing album with Superunknown.
It's somewhat rare for a band to be known best for their fourth record, but that's the case with Soundgarden. Before the album the band had created some decent music, but Superunknown launched them into another category. After that album they weren't just a cool band, they were an iconic rock group. Chris Cornell wasn't just another voice in rock he was the voice in rock that every singer with a rasp would be compared to for years to come.
Superunknown is a powerful album because it's the perfect record for the era it was made. It's angry, it's brooding, and it's depressing at the same time. It does all of that while making you bob your head to a flurry of electric guitars. Listening to the album, the guitars stick out, but so does Cornell's voice and how different it is now than it was then. Comparing Cornell's vocals, there's no doubt that his voice has aged since then. There's some wisdom there now that didn't use to be there, and that's great, but Cornell cirque 1993 was a beast. Chris Cornell had energy and passion on that record. Everything that was right about grunge music can be heard from the frontman on the album.
Cornell's the star of Superunknown most of the time, but you can't talk about the record without noting the music that accompanies the vocals. Kim Thayil's guitars are a huge reason why the album was latched on to by so many people. The opening riffs on every song are brilliant. You can listen to those guitars specifically a hundred times and still feel like you're listening to them for the first time. Thayil matched Cornell on the album, as did Matt Cameron on drums and Ben Shepherd on bass. You can say a lot for Shepherd being a key cog in the album like Thayil. With the record, the bass doesn't just drive rhythm and add depth to the music, it does more than that. Sometimes they use a cool bass riff like they would a guitar riff. Some of the coolest bass parts ever recorded are on Superunkown from Ben Shepherd. You just don't notice them unless you're listening for them. Musicianship is key with Superunknown, but so is the production by Beinhorn. If someone else is twisting nobs, managing egos, and directing Soundgarden on Superunknown, it doesn't turn into the legendary piece of music that it is.
Those are the broad-ranging reasons why Superunknown is worthy enough to celebrate twenty years, but the little things have always made me appreciate the album and have kept me coming back to it. The guitars that rise in tiny flares in the verse on "Black Hole Sun" and the spoon clanking and cow bell on "Spoonman" are just a few that immediately come to mind. When an album makes you appreciate the noticeable elements and the underlying elements too, then you know it's good.
Like a lot of other people, my musical tastes were developed thanks to older siblings when I was younger. My brother grew obsessed with Soundgarden and Superunknown when it came out and that's the primary reason I started liking it when I was just ten years old. The album gave my brother and I a connection. Listening through the album now takes me back to those memories. That speaks to the power of music that Beinhorn clearly believes in and writes about on his blog. I'm not so sure an album that's been made recently can make those same connections with listeners, and that's why Superunknown is worth celebrating twenty years later.