Down on the Upside by Soundgarden
By Eamon O'Neill
“I’ve been away for too long”, was the refrain that greeted listeners to Soundgarden’s 2012 comeback album ‘King Animal’, and boy did it feel good. After all, this was something we thought we’d never see. They had been away for too long - fifteen years, in fact - since their split following the tour in support of ‘Down on the Upside’ in 1997. Burning out after a decade that had seen them rise to become one of the biggest and most influential bands in the world, few thought they’d see them again.
It had been a steady climb, and then an sizemic eruption for the Seattle outfit to get to that point. Releasing their first album ‘Ultramega OK’ independently in 1988, it was followed by underrated major label debut ‘Louder Than Love’ - worth picking up for early classic ‘Hands All Over’, alone - a year later. It was however with the Grunge explosion in 1991 that the outfit led by Chris Cornell really arrived.
Released that year, ‘Badmotorfinger’ was a huge step up, and was loaded with some of their best-known material including ‘Rusty Cage’, ‘Jesus Christ Pose’, and ‘Outshined’. The timing couldn’t have been more serendipitous either; landing in the same twelve months as Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ and Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’, and cementing their reputation as joint leaders in the greatest sea change in music since punk.
If ‘Badmotorfinger’ set them on the road to infamy, ‘Superunknown’ (1994) sealed their reputation as one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Their magnum opus, it’s best remembered for ‘Black Hole Sun’, the collossal signature song that album producer Michael Beinhorn told eonmusic was; “one of the best songs I’ve ever heard”.
With such a run of greatness, it’s easy to forget ‘Down on the Upside’, which followed in 1996. The final release from their original tenure, it is however, a dark horse of an album, and in the grand scheme of things, an underappreciated gem.
Kicking off with lead single ‘Pretty Noose’ which arrived ahead of the album, the slow and heavy as a mammoth groove courtsey of Matt Cameron features some deft bass work from Ben Shepherd, not to mention the trademarked wah sound of guitarist Kim Thayll. It is of course the song’s writer Cornell who shines brightest however, with dense layers of his unmistakable vocals used to superb effect.
It set the album up perfectly, and with the Cameron-written groove rocker ‘Rhinosaur’ following, ‘Zero Chance’ (with music by Shepherd) is a much more laid-back affair, and an almost dreamstate in music.
Where ‘Dusty’, whose lyrics gave the album its title, is positively upbeat, Australia-only single - how strange! - ‘Ty Cobb’ defies cliches, and can best be described as punk rock with banjos (well, mandola, to be precise).
The devastatingly beautiful ‘Blow Up The Outside World’ however, is without doubt ‘Down on the Upside’s highlight. This album’s ‘Black Hole Sun’, its tender verses are tempred by that trademark Cornell wail in the choruses.
The album’s second single, ‘Burden in My Hand’ gave them another hit. Employing less conventional guitar tunings, it resulted in an insanely catchy earworm over which Cornell’s rich timbre shines.
Of the deeper album cuts, ‘Never Named’ is two and a half minutes of grunge disco. It’s countered by the sinister ‘Applebite’, which is musically dark and twisted with a disorienting vocal, while the hypnotic ‘Tighter & Tighter’ carries the same loose jam vibe.
At sixteen tracks, ‘Down on the Upside’ is the longest Soundgarden album, and as it winds down ‘No Attention’ is primitive and driving, ‘Overfloater’ is slow and steady, and closer ‘Boot Camp’ offers a trippy sign off.
Routinely the third-favourite child of their output - see both Kerrang! and Loudwire’s Soundgarden album rankings - it is none the less, a classic of the genre. Whatever difficulties pulled the band apart, the trio of albums that concluded here rank among the greatest runs in rock history.
Self-produced, ‘Down on the Upside’ closed the chapter on Soundgarden’s career entirely on their own terms. Reissued on vinyl in 2016, it’s currently available as a double LP set.
With Cornell going on to launch a solo career that began with the excellent ‘Euphoria Morning’ - later retitled ‘Euphoria Mourning’ - in 1999, and Cameron taking up the drum stool in Pearl Jam in 1998 where he remains to this day, it seemed that a reunion was unlikely. However, with the unexpected anouncement in 2010 that the “Knights of the Soundtable ride again!”, the band was reactivated, resulting in extended touring activity, and one final album, the aforementiond ‘King Animal’.
With Chris Cornell’s sad passing in 2017, it seems that that really is the end of the Soundgaden story. Or is it? For following an agreement being reached between the surviving members of the band and the keepers of Cornell’s estate, Soundgarden are reportedly working on finishing and releasing the album they were working on with the singer shortly before he died. When that’s likey to see a release is anyones guess, but until then there’s a fine catalogue to look back on.
Down on the Upside was released on 21st May 1996 and is available to buy on standard vinyl at Vinyl8.com
- Pretty Noose
- Zero Chance
- Ty Cobb
- Blow Up the Outside World
- Burden in My Hand
- Never Named
- Never the Machine Forever
- Tighter & Tighter
- No Attention
- Switch Opens
- An Unkind
- Boot Camp