Chris Cornell's Masterpiece: The Case for ‘Superunknown’ Being the Best Grunge Album Ever

Superunknown
'Superunknown was—and remains—a towering achievement in nineties rock. Soundgarden/A&M

In late 1994, Chris Cornell was asked about death and doom. It was the height of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”-fueled radio domination. Superunknown, the Seattle band’s masterpiece, was selling in the millions (it was eventually crowned the 13th best-selling album of 1994), and Kurt Cobain was dead.

Cornell was familiar with mortality’s spidery hold on music. “When Andy [Wood, of Mother Love Bone] died, I couldn't listen to his songs for about two years after that,” the Soundgarden frontman confessed to a Rolling Stone interviewer. “His lyrics often seem as though they can tell that story. But then again, my lyrics often could tell the same one... It's sort of a morbid exchange when somebody who is a writer like that dies, and then everyone starts picking through all their lyrics.”

Cornell, who died Wednesday of an apparent suicide, was correct: It is a morbid exchange. Yet death pervades every crevice of Superunknown—every gnarled metal riff, every hoarse yowl from battered vocal cords. “Mailman” explores the pathology of a disturbed man determined to murder his boss, while the final track, “Like Suicide,” ruminates on a bird's death with slowly escalating intensity (“She lived like a murder / But she died just like suicide”). “All my friends are skeletons,” the singer cries on “Spoonman,” and it wasn’t such a great exaggeration. Wood, Cornell’s close friend and ex-roommate, had died of a heroin overdose in 1990; Temple of the Dog, Cornell’s short-lived side project with members of Pearl Jam, was dedicated to his memory. Superunknown landed in stores exactly a month before Cobain was found dead by a local electrician. By then, the most thrilling rock scene in the country had become synonymous with self-destruction and grief.

Superunknown was—and remains—a towering achievement. It’s the moment where the piercing riffs and sludgy Black Sabbath worship of 1991’s Badmotorfinger congealed into one mesmerizing opus. It was not as immediately incendiary as Nevermind, of course. Nor is it as raw as Nirvana’s In Utero or as caked with fury as Pearl Jam’s great Vs. But in its extraordinary sprawl and its heady, unflinching glimpse at depression and despair, Superunknown just might be the best grunge album of the early nineties—which is to say, the best grunge album ever. That’s largely due to Cornell’s bleak lyrical acuity and wailing vocal abilities.

The big singles speak for themselves. “Black Hole Sun” is ‘90s radio incarnate in one kaleidoscopic, era-defining anthem. “The Day I Tried to Live” (about trying to break out of one’s reclusive or depressive tendencies) contains Zeppelin-worthy vocal peaks that even the most studied karaoke freaks can’t hit. “Spoonman,” with its groaning 7/4 riff, remains history’s only Billboard-charting single to contain the instrumental use of clanging spoons (check the instrumental breakdown). And “Fell on Black Days” is immense and haunting, with virtuosic guitar work by Kim Thayil. The song, according to Cornell, was meant to evoke a common crisis of dislocation: “You're happy with your life, everything's going well, things are exciting—when all of a sudden you realize you're unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared.” During the final moments of the song, Cornell cries out: “How would I know that this could be my fate?"

Any rock album is lucky to have one of those tracks. Superunknown has got all four, plus a gluttony of extraordinary non-singles that have more in common with bombastic seventies rock exploration than “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” “Kickstand” is punkish and raw. “Limo Wreck,” with its dark arpeggios and slow, churning intensity, has one of the best and most underappreciated choruses in alt-rock. The aforementioned “Like Suicide” is a gut-punching denouement. Even the really weird tracks, like the washed out psychedelia of “Half,” hold up pretty well. And between Cornell’s immense vocals, Thayil’s soloing and the odd time signatures, the band’s gift for technical detail was never really matched by Nirvana or Alice in Chains.

Superunknown is 70 minutes long, which seems long, but it never loses steam. This is partly a marvel of sequencing: So many big-selling ‘90s albums (from Nevermind up to the Backstreet Boys’ Millennium) are front-loaded with hits, while this one unfolds with a slow and inexorable sense of purpose. The songs are obsessed with despair and isolation. As drummer Matt Cameron put it, “The lyrics to Superunknown are very introspective, very dark. They're saying a whole different thing. Basically, it's a big fuck-you to the world, a plea to 'leave us alone!’”

Related: Did Kurt Cobain’s death lower the suicide rate in 1994?

Cornell’s death is sad and sudden, and it also feels like the latest in an unsettling recent trend of rock icons dying in middle age, two or three decades removed from their career peaks. Pop stars don’t live fast and die young these days; they die in their 40s or 50s, it seems, with alarming recent frequency. These deaths are tragic in their own ways, and much harder to romanticize than the exhausted cultural trope of the pop star cut down in the vibrancy of youth. Prince is the most obvious example—at 57, he hardly died young but never grew old. It was a sudden and premature demise for an icon who seemed vibrant and ageless. (We lost Phife Dawg, of A Tribe Called Quest fame, the prior month, at age 45.) And of course George Michael, another eighties icon, died at 53 in December.

Cornell is preceded in death by fellow grunge gods Cobain and Layne Staley, but more recently by Scott Weiland, the Stone Temple Pilots singer who collapsed from a drug overdose at the age of 48. Weiland, whose struggles with addiction interrupted STP’s original heyday, seemed to accomplish the sad feat of both burning out and fading away. “He wasn’t cut down in his prime but during a long smeary sunset,” the music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine noted at the time.

Chris Cornell’s sunset may have dimmed but never seemed quite so bleak, given the success of Audioslave and the triumphant Soundgarden reunion he pulled off from 2010 onward. (Then again: depression is a private, vicious thing.) In 2014, I saw the band perform Superunknown in its entirety on the occasion of the album’s 20th anniversary. It was easy to be cynical about the show, considering it was sponsored by Citi and seemed like an opportunity for flannel-clad dads to relive their glory days. But as soon as the band launched into “Let Me Drown,” the smirk faded. Cornell still had it. He nailed every note, shriek and scream. Now he’s gone.

The hoary cliché is that he’ll live on through his music. True. But it sounded so much cooler the way Cornell put it: “al-iiiiive in the superunknown!”