This is an album about death, which means it is, inevitably, also an album about life. I wrote that preceding platitude, or something like it, the first time I heard Superunknown, and immediately felt embarrassed for having done so. The idea that death and life are the face and back of the same coin is a triviality along the lines of water's dampness. Then you spend a little time, or maybe a little more than a little time, in the shadow of that truth, under the weight of it, in the belly of it, and it's not a fortune cookie anymore.
Superunknown may be one of the only three or four records I can listen to when I'm either in the best of moods or the most abyssal of moods. When I'm happy, this record reminds me of what I'm transcending; when I'm not, it reminds me of how to transcend. It came out when I was only 22 or so -- old enough to be an adult, not grown enough to be one -- and it was only over the years after it faded from regular radio rotation that it played a bigger role in my emotional life. Unlike most of the stuff that came out at the time, it grew in psychic stature instead of dwindling, as I moved past the stuff that just got airplay and listened into the rest of the album.
My definition of a good record is one that has at least a couple of good songs on it. My definition of a great record is one where I can play it all the way through and never once get the urge to hit NEXT. Superunknown has a few tracks I'm not fond of (more on that later), but the bulk of the album, I can play all the way through without blinking. A big part of that is how the momentum of the first six tracks -- six out of fifteen, a little less than half! -- is so strong it propels even a casual listen-through right past the weak stuff.
Aside from being great songs, those first five cuts embody in turn the main facets of the record: the urge to surrender and go under ("Let Me Drown"), the urge to fight despite that ("My Wave"), the gloom that chokes ("Fell On Black Days"), the grim satisfaction of nihilism ("Mailman"), and the rare rays of transcendence that enter and illuminate them all ("Superunknown"). Each of these five echoes through the rest of the record: the struggle with death, the resistance of death, the laughing back at death, the acquiescence to death, the transcendence of death. Even a quickie throwaway song like "Kickstand" gets subsumed into the bigger plan: a wild childhood moment lived outside of the shadow of death and remembered with frenzied wistfulness.
What kept me away from the album as a whole for too long was, ironically, its radio play. "Black Hole Sun" is not my favorite song on the disc -- it's not even in the top five -- and I blame the fact that it was, and still is, impossible to get away from the damned thing whenever I turned my dial. But the other cut that got radio and TV play, "Spoonman", is magnificent -- a pure hit of the transcendent facet, a slice-of-life about someone who transcends through his art.
My favorite cuts never made it to the radio anyway. "Let Me Drown", from the opening five. Or "Limo Wreck", another example of the same grim satisfaction of watching it all go under as "Mailman" (or "Black Hole Sun", for that matter). Or "Like Suicide", a fitting closer not just for its mix of fury and elegy, but for how it synthesizes all five facets of the record into a single song, purportedly based on Chris Cornell's own experience of putting a wounded bird out of its misery after it flew into a window and paralyzed itself.
I was shocked, but not terribly surprised, when Cornell himself died by suicide a couple of years ago. Rock stars of any stripe have a bad tendency to choose death in some form or other -- that is, when it isn't inflicted on them in the form of overwork or poor health. Fame, even the kind of fame enjoyed (if that's the word) by an alt-rock figure like Cornell, is almost inevitably toxic, and only certain kinds of people manage it well, whether because of good human support systems or tons of money to throw at the problem.
The problem is that we live in a world that encourages the latter and denigrates the former, or at least makes it more practical to throw drugs and money at human problems. Often the only way we learn such things don't work is at the cost of the very life we're trying to save: our own. And then it doesn't matter that you yourself are/were an artist trying to create things that would help others, or even yourself, transcend the urge to hit EJECT forever.
I think what Sonic Youth reveal in "Death Valley 69" [the closing song on the album] is the underlying fear of all alienated souls--that this world will be too much for them. That feeling like there's nowhere that you belong is something you can only deal with for so long before giving up entirely. And what happens when you give up? Do you attack society as a (w)hole through violent, antisocial acts? Or do you let the suicide holidays win? It's not a question to which there is one permanent answer. You can only answer it in terms of the day, maybe even the hour, that you are living through. And hope that the answer you come up with does indeed involve you living through it.
If it's a cliché to talk about how we cope with alienation through art, especially popular music, it's only a cliché because it's true. Most everyone my age or younger, and quite a few of them older, tell me about this album or that book that kept them from stepping off a bridge. Life's worth it not just because it has these things in it to stave off the pain, but because these things help them understand the pain, and bring them closer to other people that also know the pain and who can feel solidarity beyond the pain.
Sure, maybe any answer for what to do with what we feel only gets answered in terms of the day or the hour we live through, but the more we have that teaches us about it, the more we have to share with others about it, the better the chances the answer we come up with does indeed involve us living through it. This disc serves for me as one such answer, and if it was not enough for Chris, at least the rest of us can make the best of it.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind