Soundgarden – King Animal (4/5)
I’ll admit to more than a little trepidation when Soundgarden announced that they would be hitting the 90s nostalgia circuit and eventually release a new album. Despite the fact that a number of classic bands over the years have in the past decade started recording new material that has actually strengthened their legacy – from Mission of Burma to Dinosaur Jr. – I still didn’t have the same hopes that Soundgarden would follow in their footsteps. There are two seemingly contradictory reasons for this. One, Soundgarden stands as one of the most commercially and creatively successful bands from the 90s, and they arguably never put out a bad album. Even Chris Cornell said he worried about tarnishing their legacy, and I was inclined to agree with him. Two, by the time he, now infamously, teamed up with Tambaland for his last solo album, Cornell, who had become the most visible face of the band, had all but destroyed his goodwill. It always struck me as odd that Cornell would sink so low. After all, he was a principle songwriter in the band and his first solo album turned out to be strong effort. I was content to just listen to Soundgarden’s handful of albums over and over again.
But I’m happy to announce that all fears have been swiftly vanquished by Soundgarden’s triumphant reunion album, King Animal. If King Animal doesn’t have the same impact as Soundgarden’s one two punch, Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, then that’s a testament to the impossible quality of those two albums than a reflection on the latest album. In fact, listening to King Animal is a little like falling back in love with grunge music, a genre that rock radio has done its best to water down with helpings of imitators. But the fact that King Animal handily decimates memories of Creed and Nickleback tells you all you need to know about the album.
Unlike other grunge contemporaries, like Nirvana or Mudhoney, Soundgarden was less devout to punk. Instead their music felt like the natural inheritors of 70s arena filling rock gods, Led Zeppelin. But unlike some of those bands in the 70s and 80s, Soundgarden always knew to avoid excess when necessary. At a time when garage rock is making something of a small resurgence, it’s actually refreshing to hear a band that sounds like its aiming for those sitting the cheap seats. And there are plenty of songs on King Animal that have that epic feel, as if Thayil is conjuring a symphony out of his six strings. During songs like “A Thousand Days Before” each band member seems completely in sync with one another until the final horn crescendo. The album reminded me that Soundgarden really understood how to do big without tipping over into bombast.
King Animal is also a testament to Soundgarden’s ability to paint in the corners. While the band has always been able write pop hooks and to go heavy when necessary, they also are comfortable in the studio, adding layers to their music without diminishing its impact. When a chorus spins around again, the band might use a slight effect on Cornell’s vocals or let the song devolve into chaos during the bridge. There are always more details for a listener to sift through, and their ability to match an attention to detail with heavy hooks has always made Soundgarden’s music just as appropriate for your car’s stereo as it is for an expensive pair of headphones.
That’s not to say the band hasn’t changed in the intervening years. (Although the fact that “Non-State Actor” sounds like a caged animal trying to get free shows they’ve maintained some of their rough edges). Cornell’s voice isn’t as piercing as it once was, even if it has held up surprisingly well. The songs themselves sound like they were written by veterans rather than young bunks. But instead of running from age, the band has come to embrace growing older. Singing about wallowing in “mud and blood” and searching with his “good eye closed,” Cornell’s lyrics often had a suitably Old Testament heaviness that matched the band’s predilection for the lower end. But here Cornell finds the space to ruminate on impending middle age. On “Bones of Birds” he sings, “Time is my friend 'til it ain't and runs out / And that is all that I have 'til it's gone,” suggesting that Cornell is aware that everything we have, our talents, our relationship, and our lives all come with an expiration date. Tellingly, the album closes on the song “Rowing,” which relies on the harmonies of old time work songs. Together the band sings, “Don't know where I'm going, I just keep on rowing / I just keep on pulling, gotta row.” And if that isn’t a perfect approach to doing what you love and living your life, then I don’t know what is. Let’s hope it means that King Animal is just the first step in a new era for Soundgarden.