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25 years on from Soundgarden's 'Down on the Upside'

Today marks the 25th birthday of Soundgarden‘s Down on the Upside. The band’s fifth album, released on this day in 1996, marked a departure of sorts for the Seattle legends. Following a mammoth worldwide tour promoting their previous album, the mega-hit Superunknown, in 1994, the band commenced work on Down on the Upside in 1995.

The album is noted for the sonic contrast it carries to its 1994 predecessor. Instead of the dark sludge that characterised the likes of ‘Black Hole Sun‘ and ‘Spoonman’, the songwriting on Down on the Upside placed vocals and melodies above the hard-hitting riffs of its prior releases. However, the album, which was self-produced by the band, did contain a raw edge. An outside producer would have cleaned up and removed certain elements; the quartet opted to leave organic features such as feedback and dissonance in the mix. Furthermore, it honed the neo-psychedelia that had always been inherent to Soundgarden.

Although it was a sonic departure, the album still thrived critically and commercially. It topped the charts in Oceania and entered the album charts at number two in the US. It spawned the singles ‘Pretty Noose’, ‘Burden in My Hand’, ‘Blow Up the Outside World’ and ‘Ty Cobb’. Following its release, they embarked on the 1996 Lollapalooza tour and a worldwide tour supporting its release.

The album would also result in a physical departure for the band. It became Soundgarden’s final album for sixteen years. They broke up in April 1997 due to tensions regarding direction and fatigue from relentless touring. They would finally reunite in 2010 and released their sixth and final album, King Animal, in 2012.

Down on the Upside was recorded between Bad Animals Studio and Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard’s Studio Litho in Seattle. In terms of opting to self-produce the album, the band’s experiences recording Superunknown had significantly impacted the decision. Frontman Chris Cornell explained, “a fifth guy is too many cooks and convolutes everything. It has to go down too many mental roads, which dilutes it.” In 1996, drummer Matt Cameron acknowledged this and said that recording the 1994 album was “a little more of a struggle than it needed to be”. The band would not do it all alone, though. They re-recruited Adam Kasper to collaborate on production and mix the album. Kasper had worked as the assistant engineer on Superunknown.

Indicative of the internal tensions, the approach to songwriting was more atomised than it had been previously. This time, the band members would bring in songs that were complete. This is also attributed to the fact that Soundgarden were exploring new territories, and it gave them a wider variety of material. Ultimately, Soundgarden would spend less time working on Down on the Upside than on Superunknown. Therefore, the record was a successful time in the studio, Cornell labelled the process “way faster and way easier”.

Although all band members brought songs in, guitarist Kim Thayil’s only contribution was ‘Never the Machine Forever’. He wrote both the music and lyrics and the first iteration of the song came out of a jam session with Seattle peer Greg Gilmore. In the albums liner notes, Thayil credited Gilmore as the inspiration for the track.

Most of the album’s material was actually written by frontman Chris Cornell and bassist Ben Shepherd. Allegedly, tensions would arise during the sessions between Thayil and Cornell. Both were at loggerheads over the sonic direction of the band. The guitarist wanted more riff-heavy songs, whereas Cornell desired to shift away from the sound that had coloured the band’s previous work. Thayil said, “It can be a little bit discouraging if there isn’t satisfactory creative input, but on the other hand, I write all the solo bits and don’t really have limitations on the parts I come up with for guitar.” Before too long, the tensions started to wear thin, in 1996 Cornell said “By the time we were finished, it felt like it had been kind of hard, like it was a long, hard haul. But there was stuff we were discovering.” 

This tension and the resulting discoveries are a significant reason why the album was a success. Thayil was retrospectively in claiming that the album has a “dual nature” and “it keeps listeners on their toes”. Looking back, Shepherd’s claim that Down on the Upside was the most accurate picture of what Soundgarden actually sounds like” is also true. Whilst members might have felt sidelined, this actually fed into the album honing the band’s already established sound whilst also presenting something new and exciting.

Cornell even claimed that the track ‘Dusty’ was “pretty positive for a Soundgarden song”, particularly when he placed it in direct opposition to ‘Fell On Black Days’ from Superunknown. The late Chris Cornell made one tragically haunting comment at the time. He claimed that lead single ‘Pretty Noose’ was about “an attractively packaged bad idea”. This comment carries a deeply twisted Shakespearean element as the grunge icon succumbed to suicide by hanging in 2017.

Although Down on the Upside can be regarded as looser than its predecessors, listening back on its 25th birthday, this fluidity lends itself to the album’s longevity. Whilst its forefathers are perhaps brighter lights in the grunge and sludge genres, the ephemera inherent to Down on the Upside makes for an enjoyable listen where one seldom gets bored. This is a trivial criticism one may level at its predecessors, such as Badmotorfinger, classics of alt-rock, but more one dimensional than the band’s 1996 offering.

Conclusively, the album finished Soundgarden off, and the tragi-irony of ‘Pretty Noose’ is one of the most startling things to have ever have occurred in music. These two factors only add to the album’s intrigue. 25 years later and Down on the Upside is perhaps even more arresting than ever.