1994, A&M. Producer: Michael Beinhorn and Soundgarden.
IN A NUTSHELL: An album that is complex yet direct, mathematical yet artsy, loud and quiet and always compelling. I can’t say enough about drummer Matt Cameron, who keeps the changing beats steady and accessible. Guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd bring the crunch and bounce, but the handsome singer Chris Cornell often steals the show with his wide-ranging voice – maybe the best in rock in the past thirty years.
I’ve played music for a long time. Like many kids I banged on toy guitars and toy drums, blew through toy trumpets, and pounded on my family’s upright piano.
But then shit got real beginning in second grade, when I started going to Mrs. Bombgardner’s house on Canal St. for weekly piano lessons. This lasted until the summer of 1976, when I began learning the trombone through my school district’s band program before entering 4th grade.
In these beginner lessons in piano and trombone – after we figured out how to make a sound on the trombone – most time was spent learning to read and understand the written music that was placed in front of us. All those numbers and letters and circles and dots and lines and Italian words … it all meant something and someone had to teach us what.
Learning to read music progresses exactly the same way as learning to read words does. Just as books for beginning readers have large letters, few words and cute pictures, beginner music has large notes, short songs and cute pictures. Easy concepts are introduced; repetition is stressed. Beginning word readers spend a lot of time on words that rhyme and opposites1; beginning music readers spend a lot of time on “Hot Cross Buns.”
As you read musical notes, you develop muscle memory. Your fingers2 learn to move across the piano keys based on what your eyes see. On the trombone, your arm learns where to slide, and your lips and jaw learn how to buzz and adjust, respectively. With practice and repetition you learn what the numbers and symbols and Italian words mean, and you start to play increasingly complex music while spending less time thinking about the notes, or what your fingers (and feet), or arm and mouth are doing. Eventually, you can look at a new piece of music and play it pretty well the first time you try without really thinking much at all – a skill known as “sight-reading3.” This is, again, similar to learning to read words: capable readers no longer drag a finger along the text and sound out letter combinations – the decoding and comprehension are immediate.
This is about the level of musicianship I reached on the trombone when I stopped playing in high school – sight-reading well with a good-sounding tone. The muscle-memory I developed over 8 years was ingrained to a degree that to this day if I see certain bass clef notes, my arm still wants to move along; my jaw still stiffens or relaxes.
After high school I started learning to play the bass, but I didn’t start at my local fourth grade band room (which would have been really creepy), and I didn’t look at any notes. I learned from friends, like Dr. Dave, and he didn’t write anything down for me, he just showed me where my fingers should go, and I just sort of figured out what sounded good by playing along to Beatles and Tom Petty songs for several months. Eventually I became able to play along by ear with most any rock song, and to jam along on the blues with strangers at local dive bar open mikes. On the trombone, I could never play anything by ear, I always needed music. However, I could play some pretty complex trombone pieces by sheet music4, and I can’t do that on the bass. I became proficient on both instruments, but in much different ways. The trombone playing, from written music, feels “in my head.” The bass playing, by ear, feels “in my heart and bones.”
But whether playing by ear or by reading music, my level of musical understanding has remained very basic. I learned to transform dots and lines and Italian words into sounds on a trombone, and only on a trombone. I learned to hear and mimic rock and blues on the electric bass, and only the bass. But there are dozens of instruments5, capable of making a multitude of sounds across a seemingly unending range of pitches. All of these sounds can be organized together by pitch and tone and rhythm and timing in myriad pleasant-sounding ways. And that organization is based on – and can be described and communicated in – precise, mathematical terms that are concrete and anchored in physics; and these terms are then translated into musical symbols. I know nothing about all of that. I am fluent in trombone like an American high school Spanish student is fluent in Spanish; I am fluent in bass guitar like an intelligent, yet illiterate, Spanish speaker is fluent in Spanish. However, people who truly understand music are like linguists who are not only fluent in Spanish and all the other Romance languages, but can also explain the relationships between them. There are orders of magnitude in difference between my musical knowledge and that of, say, a music theory major. Yet I’ve helped write some really good songs.
The fact is, all those connections and relationships, and all those explanations of why notes sound good together based on physics and mathematics, are extremely UNNECESSARY in creating a great song. A great song exists in an artist’s brain, or a band’s collective brain6, and it can be transmitted via sounds whether an artist is aware of chordal relationships and time signatures or not. And the ability to WRITE IT DOWN is certainly unnecessary – just as a story can be told aloud without writing it down. In fact, I’d wager that among all the musicians on all the albums I’ve covered, fewer than 10% can even read – let alone write – music. I’d further wager that if we don’t count session musicians who may have played on some of these records, the percentage of musicians on the list who can read music would plummet to below 1%.
Written music is unnecessary in rock music. Even if one member of a band writes a song and brings it to the rest of the band to play, it’s very unlikely that any written music is involved. There may be some chords written down, but these are likely to be represented by letters (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, plus assorted sharps and flats and minors, as necessary) instead of dots, lines, Italian words, etc. The fact is, just as you don’t need to understand those dots and lines to appreciate a song, an artist doesn’t need to understand those dots and lines to write a song. Artists such as Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton … none of them could read music7, and they wrote thousands of songs. (Paul McCartney’s even written classical pieces, relying on arrangers to transliterate the instruments’ parts to notes on the page.) If you have the music inside of you, if you have that feeling, you will get it out of you and into an instrument some way, somehow, and others will feel it, too.
The point is this8: it matters little whether a musician can read or write music. All that matters is that it sounds good when it gets to your ears. And the reason I like Superunknown so much is that it touches the music-reader in me and it touches the music-feeler in me. It has unusual time signatures throughout that would seem to be challenging to read or write, but it’s got that straight-ahead driving rock sound, the guitar/bass/drums, the power that I love. The band has stated that they didn’t even think about, or concern themselves with, time signatures when they wrote the songs. They just played what sounded good and let the Music Majors figure out the math. And that process led to a masterpiece.
One of the most well-known examples of an unusual time signature is in the hit song “Spoonman.”
That first riff, right off the top, has seven beats to it – which is unusual in rock music. Rock and roll started as dance music, and since humans have two feet, dance music works best when there’s an even number of beats to a measure. So seven beats can feel awkward – and I mean “feel,” not “sound.” But drummer Matt Cameron, who’s responsible for keeping the rhythm flowing, is able to stay steady, constant, to a degree that you may not even notice there’s anything particularly different about the beat – but there is. That main riff is simply one of the best ever in rock, powerful and memorable, and I love the riff in the chorus, as well (which switches from seven to a regular four/four beat, just for kicks). The lyrics are actually about a man named Artis the Spoonman who played the spoons on the streets of Seattle, and who also played them on this track. I love the sound of this song, from Ben Shepherd’s rumbly, chunky bass at 2:00, and again at 2:50, to Kim Thayil’s slashing guitar throughout. Also, Chris Cornell has one of my favorite all-time voices in rock, and it’s on beautiful display on this one. This was a big song from the album, and it got a lot of airplay, and it deserved it.
Another song I love despite (because of??) its odd-feeling time-signature is the powerful “My Wave.”
Count along with Cameron’s snare drum, which goes BAP … BAP-BAP/ … BAP … BAP-BAP. If you count such that the first “BAP” is on two, and the “BAP-BAP” is on four-five, and start over immediately, you’ll be counting in 5/49. Despite this unusual beat, the song drives forward relentlessly. What catches my ear next are the strong vocals from Cornell. His melody is sparse but catchy, but it’s very rhythmic and sounds terrific with the 5/4 time signature. Guitarist Kim Thayil plays that simple, catchy riff, but throws in some neat sounds, particularly in the “My Wave” chorus, first at about 1:48, then he and bassist Ben Shepherd have some cool interplay around 2:15. The lyrics are sort of a “live and let live” manifesto, but the song is really about the sound and power. At about 3:40, an outro starts that changes to 4/4, sounds Eastern and then gets almost nursery-rhyme-ish. It’s probably my favorite song on the album.
But the craziest time signature on the record is unquestionably “Fresh Tendrils.” I’m not even sure how to count out a beat on this one …
It’s in 6/4, then 4/4, then 6/4, then at about 1:24 it goes all haywire and I can’t figure it out. Cornell’s voice is once again front-and-center, on inscrutable lyrics, but Thayil’s riff is really cool, too – he gets an unusual, trebley sound out of his guitar. Bassist Ben Shepherd shines, too. And for every song, just take it “as read” that I love what Matt Cameron’s doing on the drums. This band can really play, and I love this album!
I didn’t get into the band or the record because of its strange time signatures. I had heard of them way back in the late 80s, when my friend Eric used to go see them when they’d come on tour. They, and singer Chris Cornell, were featured on the very cool Singles soundtrack, and I liked a couple songs from their 1991 album Badmotorfinger. I heard the first single from this album, “Black Hole Sun,” and I hated it. But then I heard “Fell On Black Days,” and I loved it. I went out and bought the CD.
Of course, given my history, I notice right away that the song’s in 6/410, but I also notice the cool little bend that Chris Cornell, playing rhythm guitar on this one, adds to the main riff, and Matt Cameron’s terrific kick-drum introduction at about 15 seconds. I haven’t mentioned much about bassist Ben Shepherd yet, but I love his rolling bass line on this chorus of this song, heard first at about 55 seconds. Cornell’s lyrics are a little more direct this time, about life with depression, and his delivery at times gives me chills. Lead guitarist Thayil again has that trebley, trembling guitar sound on his solo, beginning about 2:20.
It’s probably time for me to say a few words about Chris Cornell. First of all, I find him quite handsome – to a degree that I almost wrote about being heterosexual but sometimes seeing a man and thinking, “wow – he’s attractive.” But more than that I think he has one of the best voices in rock. He can sing sweetly and soft and he can shout and scream with the best of them. One of the first times I listened to him was on his solo song from that Singles soundtrack: “Seasons.” It’s just him on guitar and singing, and it’s excellent. And he’s also excellent when he belts it out – as in the title track from Superunknown.
It’s got a great Kim Thayil riff to open it up, and Ben Shepherd plays a cool bouncy bass line. But it’s Cornell’s show, howling and shouting lyrics about … geez, I don’t know, being yourself? I guess maybe. I really love these types of rockers, and Thayil’s Eastern-sounding guitar solo, at 3:52. (Speaking of Eastern-sounding, check out Ben Shepherd’s track, “Half.” Sheesh!) Another great rocker is the opening track, “Let Me Drown,” which has a cool, grinding riff and features Cameron’s inventive drumming and Shepherd’s bubbling bass (plus some authentic 90s-era scratching thrown into the chorus!). They also go all-in on the punk sound on the short, peppy “Kickstand.”The band sounds powerful on these driving rockers, but they also sound powerful – and plenty heavy – when they sling the slow, sludgy sounds of Seattle despair.
A good example is “Limo Wreck,” in which the band demonstrates it can do odd time signatures at a slow pace, too. It’s got cool guitar harmonics, a bass line that sounds like it doesn’t fit and lyrics about something. Another sludgy song is the excellent, but probably too-long, “Head Down.” And “Mailman” is definitely the sludgiest of the bunch. “4th of July” is also a good one in this style, although the beginning of the song makes me want to turn it off – but keep listening, ’cause it gets really good.
The album’s final song, “Like Suicide,” is my favorite of the slow ones.
Fittingly, given my love of his drumming, it starts with a martial beat by Cameron. Cornell shows off the full range of his voice on the song, singing lyrics that came to him when he saw a bird fly into his window and die. I like how his melody at times doesn’t seem like it fits the song, but it does. At 3:30, it starts to kick in, and Cameron plays some excellent fills. At about 4:31 Thayil plays another Eastern-inflected riff, a prelude to his cool solo at 5:15. It’s a great album-closing song, featuring everything I love about the album – except for the fact that the time signature is straight 4/4 the whole way!!
When I began learning to play instruments, I had no idea that the specific musical knowledge I picked up would affect my appreciation of all music. However, this doesn’t mean I immediately try to tear apart all the songs I like. I do not take such a logical approach to music, like a physicist attempting to reverse-engineer a product by pulling it apart and seeing what’s inside and how it works. I simply listen and like what I hear, which I believe is the spirit in which artists create. The underlying math can describe and communicate, it can enhance understanding, but that’s all in one part of the head. The artistry comes from a different part, the part that feels like the heart and the bones, the part that’s called the “soul.” This is how music connects with me, how Superunknown connects with me. Everything else is just lines and dots and Italian words.
“Let Me Drown”
“Fell On Black Days”
“Black Hole Sun”
“The Day I Tried To Live”
“4th of July”