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Soundgarden, Again

An uncynical look at the value of rock band reunions

On Saturday I spent several hours listening to Soundgarden’s first studio album in 16 years, King Animal, and trying to formulate an opinion about it beyond “Whoa, this is way better than I expected.” So, naturally, I turned to the 2000 VH1 original movie Two of Us later that night on YouTube.

Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, best known for helming the proto–Squid and the Whale Beatles documentary Let It Be, Two of Us is a fictionalized account of John Lennon (played by proto–Lane Pryce Jared Harris) and Paul McCartney (played by a post-post–Desperately Seeking Susan Aidan Quinn) spending a day together in 1976 New York City. In the realm of VH1 original movies, Two of Us is superior to Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story and at least as good as Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story. This is to say that its artistic quality (which isn’t very high) is inversely proportional to its watchability (which is inexplicably high). It’s true that the part where John and Paul get stoned, don disguises, and dance to a reggae band in Central Park isn’t as incredible as it could be. But the part at the end where Paul musters his inner Sean Maguire and tells John that he’s a beautiful little boy who shouldn’t blame himself for his parents abandoning him kind of worked on me. (I should say it worked on me again, since I’ve seen Two of Us twice now.)

Anyway, this pretend encounter happens to take place on April 24, 1976, the same day that Lorne Michaels (in real life!) famously offered The Beatles $3,000 to reunite on Saturday Night Live. The timing is deliberate, as one of the main themes of Two of Us is the chief Beatles’ weariness of constant reunion questions. (This is apparently what drove John Lennon to bulimia and Paul McCartney to write “Wonderful Christmastime.”) In the film, John and Paul happen to be watching television when Michaels makes his offer,1 and they find it so hilarious that they almost go down to 30 Rock with a pair of guitars and some hastily prepared Jerry Lee Lewis covers.

Let’s say that this semi-fake scenario really did play itself out. And that it eventually led to The Beatles reconvening at Abbey Road with their gentlemanly record producer, George Martin. And when a new Beatles album finally did come out in 1979, it included the best songs that would’ve otherwise appeared on Double Fantasy and McCartney II, along with some improbably unearthed leftovers from George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass era. (And maybe Paul set aside “Temporary Secretary” or something for Ringo to sing.)

The point is that this theoretical new Beatles LP is good, perhaps even quite good. But is it necessary? Or does it just make the idea of new Beatles music less interesting because it is no longer imaginary (in the context of this imaginary world)? Soundgarden obviously aren’t The Beatles,2 but King Animal is this Beatles hypothetical made into reality. It’s an enjoyable record made by a group that appeared to have no chance of ever getting back together, and it’s pretty much exactly what fans of the band’s Louder Than Love/Badmotorfinger period — i.e., the people most invested in a Soundgarden reunion producing new music — would want. It sounds thick like a redwood, fuzzy with a 1991 vintage, and thoroughly gonad-y. It favors sonic texture and musical muscularity over grabby melodies (which is a nice version of saying “samey but in a good way”). It has miserablist song titles like “Blood on the Valley Floor,” “Attrition,” and “Black Saturday” that are authentically grungy. It marks a reverse-evolution back to Soundgarden’s intelligent Neanderthal incarnation, which the band left behind in the mid-’90s when it became a smoking-doors R.E.M., turning out a string of excellent radio singles from 1994’s epochal Superunknown and 1996’s (no longer) swan song, Down on the Upside. On King Animal, Soundgarden once again sounds like a band that broods with its back to the audience.

I can’t stress enough how much King Animal conforms, even panders, to fan expectations; I even double-checked the liner notes to make sure that Joss Whedon didn’t direct it. This is a record with built-in advocacy appeal. In typical Soundgarden fashion, King Animal is an unassuming, workmanlike, fur-covered automaton that seems destined to be overlooked in its time. If King Animal had come out in 1998 after the embittered Down on the Upside, people would’ve suggested that Soundgarden should’ve already broken up. But if Soundgarden broke up after King Animal, Stereogum would just now be getting around to writing a retrospective piece calling it unfairly underrated.

So, yeah, like most reunion records, King Animal has a subtext, and it has to do with historical preservation. It doesn’t push Soundgarden into the future, no matter what Chris Cornell or Kim Thayil might suggest in interviews. King Animal is battle-ready for the present like a battalion of Civil War reenactors. What King Animal asserts is that Soundgarden’s past still matters. If you happen to be The Beatles, that sort of thing can seem superfluous. But for a band like Soundgarden, which has seen its share of pop-culture real estate shrink with the dwindling historical significance of grunge, reminding the public of your lost (and yet still very real) greatness has some obvious value.

I‘m a pretty easy sell lately when comes to reunion records. I thought Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth had at least five very good songs. I possibly wrote more words on The Darkness’s Hot Cakes than every other critic on Planet Earth combined. I bought the first two “classic lineup” Guided by Voices LPs released in 2012, and I’m planning to pick up the third, The Bears for Lunch, when it comes out today. I have listened to The Beach Boys’ That’s Why God Made the Radio all the way through more than once.

Chris Cornell
King Animal is the best of this reconstituted bunch, and that’s because it had to be. When Soundgarden broke up in 1997, it was the Amy Poehler–Will Arnett of rock-and-roll divorces. From the outside, Soundgarden had seemed like the most stable band of its class. Around the time of Superunknown, the smart money was on Soundgarden, not Pearl Jam, surviving the ’90s and continuing on forever and ever.3 But that didn’t happen, and the person who’s suffered the most as a result is probably Cornell. Because of his association with universally known not-good rock band Audioslave and a non-starter solo career that slipped into the full-on trolling of rock critics with 2009’s Timbaland collaboration Scream, Cornell (and by extension Soundgarden) has been commonly regarded as the skeezy uncle to a generation of leathery post-grunge bands. Instead of being recognized as the second-greatest songwriter to come out of grunge, Chris Cornell gets blamed for “Something in Your Mouth.” Which isn’t fair, but in lieu of Soundgarden maintaining its own legacy in the intervening years, it was left to others to do it for them.

The members of Soundgarden have said in interviews that the initial impetus to reunite in 2010 was the need to establish a website and generally reignite interest in the band’s back catalog. Those conversations led to some shows, then a tour, and now an album. So King Animal, in a sense, has been constructed more as a door into Soundgarden’s history than as a path forward.

Cornell is not the singer he once was: About 20 percent of his banshee wail is lost somewhere between the microphone and his epiglottis on King Animal. But the rest of the band is in just the right place. The mesmerizing, closed-fist throb of Thayil’s guitar, Ben Shepherd’s bass, and Matt Cameron’s backbeat pounds throughout King Animal, which suitably indulges Soundgarden’s psychedelic side (the head-swimming “A Thousand Days Before”), its Led Zep golden god side (“Worse Dreams”), its shirtless Valhalla Rising side (“Blood on the Valley Floor”), and its artiness-signified-by-free-jazz-horns side (“Black Saturday”).

King Animal arrives at a time when rock radio is in the process of dying an ignoble death, with the agent of end times coming in the form of pop groups like fun. and Mumford & Sons sweeping away post-grunge’s wretched remains. King Animal won’t affect this sea change, nor should it, but it is a reminder that men donning soul patches and detuned guitars once sided with the angels, playing heavy rock music that specialized in mid-tempo hypnotism creating a sensation somewhere between tantric sex and everlasting death. More than any individual track, King Animal is about showing that the sound of Soundgarden slowly inhaling and exhaling as a working musical unit can still be intoxicating like dreamy, smoky sludge sucked out of a honey bear bong. Let it never be forgotten again.

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden