When Soundgarden announced they were working on their first album in sixteen years I was giddy with anticipation. My inner teenager who grew up with their albums, and who continued to favor them throughout the years, was certainly ready for their latest album in a fantastic discography.
The natural questions get asked – will it be as good as their previous work or is the band just reaching for past glory? The answer, for the vast majority of the album, is that this is an alternative rock band that should have never stopped making music together.
I believe I’ve been on the record in the past of stating Down on the Upside is one of, if not my favorite, SG album. Why? Well, because I hated it when it came out. It was neither Badmotorfinger nor was it SuperUNKNOWN, and that disappointed me. Which was ridiculous because about eight years later I was so hooked on that album. The diversity and artistic capabilities of each of the individuals in the band to make something that pushed the boundaries of what people knew about their albums to that point was amazing.
So to that end, yeah – I was completely ready to find out what lay next with riffs and ruminations that had laid dormant for years without being fleshed out. For those who love the lead-off single, ‘Been Away to Long,’ realize this – it’s a concession song. It brings back their familiarity to rock radio, but it’s a by the numbers tune straight down to the title. Everything else on this album is 10x better than that track.
‘Non-State Actor,’ and ‘By Crooked Steps,’ both have the vitriol of classic Soundgarden – the riffs and rhythm sections in tight cohesion and Cornell’s signature howl firmly in command. ‘A Thousand Days Before,’ features horns and an eastern vibe to accentuate another, more mainstream track. ‘Blood on the Valley Floor,’ could have been taken straight from SuperUNKNOWN and reminds me of ‘Mailman.’
‘Bones of Birds,’ is this album’s ‘Black Hole Sun,’ or ‘Trying to Blow Up The Outside World,’ – not quite a ballad, but easily the softer angled tune on the album. The chorus reminds me somewhat of the guitars in Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are,’ but it’s a fleeting moment – for the most part it just sounds like Soundgarden covering Soundgarden.
‘Taree,’ follows and is currently my favorite track on the record. It starts at mid-tempo with an almost bluesy vibe. As you look at the album artwork, you think about this track and how the two kind of coincide with one another. Thayil’s solo kicks ass midway through. Cameron’s playing is highlighted too as this song shifts in time changes throughout while retaining the central riff. All of it held together by Shepherd’s bass lines.
‘Attrition,’ flirts again with garage rock and punk most similar to something like ‘Ty Cobb,’ off of Down on the Upside. In true fashion, it’s the shortest track on the album and features ‘whooo, oooh,’ backing vocals. ‘Black Saturday,’ is a track that I’m sure will appeal to some and again utilizes a horn section in the middle but overall, I feel the track is more filler than killer. ‘Halfway There,’ is another radio concession starting out with sparse acoustics and percussion, before picking up somewhat at the bridge (this was the kind of thing the band Tantric made a killing off of). It’s an o.k. tune – definitely makes sense and would also fit in on an Audioslave album, as this one borrows from Cornell’s entire bag of tricks.
‘Worse Dreams,’ picks up with Shepherd’s bass line slinking in, and Thayil following alongside before the track really kicks in. It sings of Seattle and truly recalls that grunge sound when it hits the choruses. It’s a fun mood piece and I can see this one at live shows completely devolving into a 10 minute opus for Thayil and Cornell to trade solos and riffs while Shepherd and Cameron hold things down. ‘Eyelids Mouth,’ again opens with Shepherd and Cameron kicking things off followed by a riff and Cornell’s falsetto in fine form. ‘Who let the water run down?/Who let the river run dry?’ screams the chorus. It’s an update on ‘Room a Thousand Years Wide,’ where they’ve shifted the tempo around and it works brilliantly. A crisp solo lays into a killer riff with Cameron completely backing it up and you’re transported straight back to the 90’s for a couple minutes of just killer riff and solo before it fades away.
‘Rowing,’ closes out the set and is a complete mood piece. A rumbling, repetitive Shepherd bass line drives the entire track. Cornell takes it and paves the lyrics ‘Don’t know where I’m going/I just keep on rowing/I just keep on pulling that rope,‘ like a chain-gang sermon. Thayil comes in mid track and pins the spikes into the railroad tracks and the locomotive is off one piston at a time. The machine that is Soundgarden has been resurrected and is moving again. There’s no end in sight and it’s a fantastic and completely relevant return to form. Welcome back, my friends — you’ve been sorely missed.