In May of 1996 I had just graduated from high school and my musical tastes had progressed from the alternative/grunge sounds of the early 90s to full on punk and hardcore. I had chosen a college to attend, Belmont University in Nashville, TN, and was focused on that transition more than popular musical trends.
I was a fan of Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and Superunknown albums, although the popularity they received for “Black Hole Sun” wore on my patience and only added to my desire to find independently released music that meant more to me.
While I was on my punk rock journey in 1996, Soundgarden released Down on the Upside, an album that would cause the band to split until reuniting for 2012’s King Animal. I recently found a CD copy in a used book store of Down on the Upside for .25 cents and decided to pick it up and see what I missed.
The first thing I recalled were the three radio singles: “Pretty Noose”, “Blow Up The Outside World” and “Burden In My Hand”. But, I also noticed the singles have aged rather well these past 20 years and don’t annoy me as much as when they were released. In 1996 though these songs were plastered all over alternative radio and MTV. You couldn’t escape them.
The two songs that immediately stood out to me were “Dusty” and “Switch Opens”.
“Dusty” comes at you loud, fast and hard but then slows down and almost sounds…pretty? Ah, dynamics. I miss dynamics. I miss songs that start loud, find a softer side then get loud again.
“Switch Opens” arrives near the end of the album. Rumor has it the band, who produced this album themselves, were arguing over the musical direction of the album. Certain band members wanted a “prettier” feel to it while others wanted to keep it heavy. To me, a song like “Switch Opens” was a sign of future musical directions for the band that were never properly mined.
Side note – It’s interesting that bands in the 90s felt the need to do the opposite following their largest commercial successes…Soundgarden was toying with the idea of prettier records while R.E.M. in 1994 decided to make a loud rock record with Monster.
Kim Thayil has only one song credited to him on the album, “Never The Machine Together”, and it sounds like a song accidentally left off of Badmotorfinger. Maybe that’s an indication of who wasn’t ready to make prettier sounding albums?
To Kim’s credit, there are plenty of loud and fast songs I like: “Ty Cobb”, “Never Named”, “Never The Machine Together” and “No Attention” all feel like classic Soundgarden songs.
Also, is it just me or does “Applebite” sound like a lost Fugazi album cut?
As of a teenager of the 90s and now looking back on the albums released during that time, I can identify with the below quote, written by Ryan Leas in 2016 for Stereogum:
Here’s another reason Down On The Upside was on my mind around its anniversary. For several years now, we’ve talked about this or that ’90s revivalism in the current crop of young, often-DIY rock bands. Scuzzy grunge-y bands some years back, bands that sound like Pavement, the emo revival, etc., etc. But it still doesn’t strike me that younger artists have mined the big grunge bands in any way that makes you want to listen to them; the bands we do like who are ’90s-indebted don’t feel related to this stuff at all. Mostly, I hear it discussed as a non-entity or a punchline. People write this stuff off as macho classic rock, positioning a band like Pearl Jam or Soundgarden as more of an extension of jock-y ’80s arena rock than they’d let on, or than they would at all have been comfortable with at the time. And, sure, Down On The Upside still very much sounds like a product of that version of the ’90s, but there’s a lot more going on here, and elsewhere in Soundgarden’s music, than the world of “Black Hole Sun” or whatever other obvious ’90s radio hit. It’s interesting in the context of Soundgarden and the ’90s, because it shows a bunch of megastars making a shambling, cluttered post-script to their commercial peak and their role in grunge’s mainstream moment. Albums like that can be way more intriguing than the classics they follow, because there’s so much more mystery there. As Soundgarden is overlooked or side-lined in general, Down On The Upside is an overlooked gem of the latter half of the ’90s. This is a strange, haunted, furious death-rattle of an album, and 20 years later it still sounds like it has more secrets to uncover.
To Ryan’s point, I too find that many of the “post-script” albums of 90s for bands like Soundgarden, R.E.M. and especially Pearl Jam, are now more interesting than the “hit” records normally associated with each. We all know their hit records and decided to move on to other bands when these rock stars branched out and tried new things, pushing the envelope to create a true body of work. In the 1980s, popular bands stayed in their lane, making the same records over and over again to please radio and MTV. That’s why a band like Nirvana could show up and blow everyone’s mind. But it didn’t last long and what we got instead in the latter half of the 90s were bands like Creed, Limp Bizkit and eventually Nickelback.
Soundgarden would break up following the tour to promote Down on the Upside and I was going through my own changes musically as well. I had fully moved into punk rock and hardcore music and it would be a few years before I’d find the more intriguing indie sounds of bands like Archers of Loaf, Superchunk, Yo La Tengo and more. Maybe I’ll give Soundgarden’s King Animal a listen next and see what direction they took years later. Who knows, maybe it mirrored mine?