It Was 20 Years Ago Today…May 1996

Soundgarden: Down On the Upside

Though perhaps even the band didn’t know it at the time, Down on the Upside was the last album by Soundgarden for nearly 20 years. The disbanding of Soundgarden after the tour behind this album signaled the decline and end of the popularity of grunge on the radio waves. Sure, Pearl Jam is still putting out albums, but they’re not topping the charts alongside Alice in Chains and Soundgarden like all of them were back in the early to mid 1990s.

Still, as a swan song, Down on the Upside has several high moments. First out of the gates is the track “Pretty Noose”, built largely around the twisting guitar groove and showing off Chris Cornell’s distince vocal abilities. Soundgarden always did have one foot in the heavy rock scene (I hesitate to say metal), and with downbeat grooves and subject matter, “Pretty Noose” does a pretty good job of flexing their muscles.

Track four, “Dusty”, is the song which features the inspiration behind the title of the album, featuring the line “I think it’s turning back on me/I’m down on the upside”. Track five, “Ty Cobb”, features about 20 seconds of pretty finger picking before charging full throttle into 3:30 of an angry, rabid, menacing ode to telling everybody everywhere to fuck off.

The next two tracks were both gigantic radio hits from this album. “Blow up the Outside World”, I remember a friend telling me, made him want to try to help Cornell when he sang the line “Nothing seems to kill me, no matter how hard I try”. Regardless of that brief anecdote, the song was a long charting hit for the band, especially on Seattle radio. The lyrics themselves are most obviously about being so fed up with everything around, one wants nothing more than to blow it all up forget it all. Not even necessarily start over, but get rid of everything else.

Burden in My Hand”, features themes of the protagonist feeling weighed down by regret and therefore losing his love and not able to enjoy the simpler things in life. If a straightforward interpretation is to be constructed, the subject is watching his love walk away because of continued bad habits. Some have speculated through the years that the bad habits are heavy drug use, but I’m not sure of this interpretation. Kim Thayil, guitarist for Soundgarden, has described this song as the 90s version of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”. Perhaps the line about “shot my love today” is meant to be a literal interpretation…

As I have frequently found on Soundgarden releases, the songs which were released as singles, the catchier songs, are most often stacked in the first half of the record. It was true of Superunknown, with only “The Day I Tried to Live” appearing on the second half of tracks. Unfortunately, it is also true of Down on the Upside.

Album tracks” take up the second half of this album, songs that have less catchy choruses, sludgier, grungier riffs, and among the more standard guitar wails. Examples from the second half include “No Attention”, a faster song with a basic chorus; “Overfloater”, a slow grinder; and the final track on the album, “Boot Camp”, which is a slow builder coming in at 3 minutes.

Soundgarden announced their breakup in early 1997, afte a successful Lollapalooza run. Chris Cornell went on to record a commercially unsuccessful solo album before becoming the lead singer of Audioslave. Kim Thayil mostly stayed out of the music business, being featured on a handfull of projects over the next several years. Most notable among those were Dave Grohl’s heavy metal project, Probot, and the No WTO Combo, featuring Krist Novoselic and Jello Biafra, whose one and only show was in downtown Seattle the day after the 1999 WTO riots.

Drummer Matt Cameron went on to become the drummer for Pearl Jam, a position he still holds.

In April 2010, a reunited Soundgarden played a “surprise” gig under the monikker Nude Dragons (an anagram of Soundgarden) at the Showbox at the Market. Many within the Seattle music community knew that the actual band was Soundgarden before the event, however, it did mark the return of one of the foremost members of the 90s Seattle music scene.

King Animal was subsequently released in late 2012, featuring the reacquaintance single “Been Away Too Long”, a fitting title for a band returning form a 15 year break with new music. In January 2016, Soundgarden announced they were in the studio and recording what will ultimately become their seventh studio album.


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