For a band of impressive magnitude — an unholy sum of Chris Cornell’s wails, Kim Thayil’s strangely tuned, beautifully heavy guitar, and the Zeppelin/Sabbath-indebted rhythm section of bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron — Soundgarden’s return from their decade plus absence has been kind of tentative. First some live shows, playing all the hits and dusting off a Badmotorfinger b-side, then a contribution to The Avengers. It took a year and a half of being into this reunion thing for Soundgarden to get blunt and definitive. We were introduced to their comeback album King Animal by way of “Been Away for Too Long,” a song that awkwardly stampedes into a bland chorus repeatedly proclaiming they’ve, well, been away too long.
Soundgarden is both the ’90s band you’d most want back and least want back, and kind of for the same reason. They left behind a pretty impeccable catalogue, and the prospect of these four guys making music together seems promising even if their genre has long since vanished.
Soundgarden perform tonight at Irving Plaza.
Between our current societal addiction to nostalgia and our digitized awareness of quickly recurring sounds and trends, we are ever more aware of how succinctly everything moves in cycles. People write all the time now about the ’90s being back, but it’s the ’90s of shoegaze, Pavement, and British alternative. It’s not the ’90s of L7, Screaming Trees, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. There are almost no relevant, major bands that seem to heavily draw from the likes of the Seattle scene. There are a handful of bands that are total Smashing Pumpkins acolytes (looking at you, Silversun Pickups), but when it comes to ’90s revivalism it seems people cite the mid-late ’80s alternative stuff that influenced the ’90s, bands like Sonic Youth or the Replacements. When people talk about Yuck being grungey, it’s in that scuzzy, semi-lo-fi way of Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr., not in the grandiose metal/punk/psychedelia blend of bands like Screaming Trees or Soundgarden. St. Vincent’s mentioned Nirvana as an influence, but in the same cast-off way folks acknowledge the influence the Pixies and Big Black. When was the last time you heard a culturally relevant or popular band cite Soundgarden as an influence?
In that same blunt chorus for “Been Away Too Long,” Cornell says something that’s probably more profound than he intended: “Hey, no one knows me/ No one saves me/ No one loves or hates me/ I’ve been away for too long.” As directly as he’s saying they’ve been away too long, it seems dubious he’s acknowledging how Soundgarden, and grunge in general, have sort of become lost children in the world of music criticism — not known, loved, or hated. Just kind of faded out there in the ether. It’s easy to forget the hugeness of what the grunge movement represented, the moment where ’80s alternative and college rock blew up in the mainstream. It was the first time alternative became that popular, and it was the last time rock music was truly unifying, the last time it was a zeitgeist. And yet, when you hear about the ’90s being revived, it’s never this version of the ’90s.
Soundgarden in 2012 isn’t just out of step because it’s been 15 years; it’s also because they’re coming back from an era where alternative rock was briefly a universalizing, pop genre in a way we don’t see as much with Indie. Part of this is circumstantial. The pop world has been wildly decentralized by the digital era; it’s doubtful that there could ever be artists as universal as the Beatles or Bruce Springsteen in 1983 or, for a minute there, Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Soundgarden in their ’90s heyday. But only part of the blame for that lays at the feet of technology. Fault also lies with the current crop of alternative artists themselves. They’re not trying to be universal anymore. They’re not up for it.
Something about indie and our contemporary alternative rock music feels smaller in scale. There are elements of grunge that aren’t hip anymore, because they’re elements that don’t totally translate. The “big” elements. Its classic rock strands, its status as the last bastion of when rock could rule the pop world. Tangentially, it’s possible that grunge has been temporarily or permanently exiled based on what it begat. Who wants to claim Pearl Jam or Soundgarden as an influence after a parade of Creed and other nu-rock mutants? But what it still comes down to, ultimately, is something that’s maybe a bit bygone in the world of rock music, a more unhinged sense of scale and ambition.
Being part of the alternative explosion of the ’90s, Soundgarden represents the last moment of rock’s grandiosity mixed with its underground’s conscience and artistic credibility. They represent a a time when it was still okay to be experimental but also want to take over the world. That kind of unbridled drive gets laughed at these days. Indie is too self aware and self-reflexive to allow room for that kind of attitude. Even earnest indie often has an ironic distance; it’s always a somewhat calculated earnestness.
All this in turn means it can’t have the same kind of stakes as a big moment like grunge did. Here is one major consistency between King Animal and Soundgarden’s initial run: they are peddling a version of rock music that is sometimes in danger of being written off as ham-fisted in our contemporary musical landscape. But there’s something to be said for bands that were big-sounding, heavy. Bands that relied on charging riffs and solos, elements all but extinct amongst our major indie bands.There’s a different kind of gravity that comes of that willingness to maybe fall on your face, because when you do manage to pull it off you get something monumental. You get the chorus of “The Day I Tried to Live,” which can still bring you to your knees almost 20 years on. Of course, Indie music can soar too. But very little of it feels like it’s grasping for the stratospheric ambition displayed by the monolithic rock records of the past. Maybe it’s partially the circumstance of no longer really being able to be universal, but Indie rarely seems to want to engage in the same world-conquering stakes as our last generation of alternative rock music. Whether it’s fair or not, that makes it seem more temporary. To achieve timelessness, you need an unaware earnestness, not a preconceived one, and that comes with the possibility of falling on your face.
On King Animal, Soundgarden sticks to their big riff, heavy rock guns. This was always about remembering that alternative rock music could sound like it had something at stake, could sound like it could move mountains with a massive lead riff. Perversely, it’s precisely in Soundgarden’s basic refusal to absorb any of the strands of what’s occurred since ’97 that makes King Animal sound weirdly vital. It’s music dead-set against being temporary, of falling into the critical detritus where “no one loves or hates me.” It’s a reminder of when alternative rock bands weren’t too self-aware, didn’t think too much, and paradoxically wound up seeming like they really gave a damn.