No matter how you look at it, with or without rose-colored glasses, 1996 was the death of Alternative Rock. It probably had little to do with the loss of Kurt Cobain a few years before, but more to do with the cultural shift. Bands on MTV were relying less and less on brooding angst and focusing on the future where guitars were optional. Established acts were feeling the aches and Soundgarden was no exception. Their 1996 album Down On The Upside, suffered and soared thanks to those said aches.
Grunge died the moment foreboding atmosphere became a commodity.
The alternative rock scene was trying to find it’s footing in a post-Nirvana world. Pearl Jam entered their well-publicized battle with Ticketmaster and Alice In Chains began their fade into obscurity due to Layne Staley’s drug addictions. Even the bands unfairly lumped into grunge like The Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots were on to higher concepts. Despite having a hand in creating grunge, and Superunknown solidifying their status, Soundgarden had two choices: grow or die. They did both.
In late 1995 Soundgarden began work on what would become Down On The Upside. They chose to produce the album themselves to capture the rawness of their live show. Despite being seasoned artists, self-producing a record at such a pivotal time in rock was a controversial decision. Even more so as tensions were rising among members as to what direction to take the album. Those tensions would eventually come to a head during the tour supporting Down On The Upside with Soundgarden officially calling it quits in early 1997.
Down On The Upside knew the party was over before Soundgarden did.
When I listen to Down On The Upside, I find it hard to pick up on an overarching theme other than the bravery of experimentation. Soundgarden were always far more sonically ambitious than their Seattle brethren due to Cornell’s knack for poetic lyrics and Thayil’s spacey guitar work. However, with this album, the experimentation feels as if it’s coming from a place of resolution instead of progression. The unorthodox timing, exotic guitar tuning, and textural instrumentation of mandolin and mandola all fit perfectly and never feels pretentious.
With so many different styles present, Down On The Upside is the most well-rounded Soundgarden album.
“Nothing seems to kill me no matter how hard I try” Cornell mumbles on the opening of “Blow Up The Outside World”. Any other person singing that line in any other song would come off melodramatic. Cornell showcases his dark sense of humor without sacrificing tone.There’s a certain duality within his artistry that put him in a league of his own. Cornell had this uncanny ability to be subtle when everything around him was bombastic. He exhibits that element in every single song on Down On The Upside.
Even though Superunknown is considered Soundgarden’s most influential album, and one of the most important releases in 90s pop culture, I can’t help but gravitate to Down On The Upside as my personal favorite. It has everything I love about Soundgarden. The cynicism, dark humor, anger, beauty, and some of the finest hard rock of the entire decade.
My absolute favorite aspect of Down On The Upside is the foreshadowing.
Even before the band realized it, Down On The Upside signified the end of an era. Rock music went in many different directions the following year and not all of them were good. Hard rock was infiltrated by heavier, simplified riffs of post-grunge and as soon as the record executives saw there was money to be made by combining hard rock with hip-hop, the scene was officially dead.
Now that Cornell is no longer with us, I feel that he took final piece of that era with him. Sure we still have Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan, but those guys are so far away from where they started, it’s difficult to link them to the genre. Don’t get me wrong, there was good rock music before, during, and after Soundgarden, but now it feels different.
Just as Down On The Upside finalized a certain place in time, the loss of Chris Cornell is truly an end of an era.