A sprawling, highly subjective review of Soundgarden’s “King Animal”
— “I’ve been away for too long …” — “Been Away Too Long”, opening song from King Animal
— “Don’t know where I’m going/I just keep on rowing” — “Rowing”, closing song from King Animal
I suppose that first lyric could, alas, be applied to my postings on this fine blog. The past few weeks have been incredibly busy, with each day passed the cause for more muttering on my part about all of the brilliant, world-changing posts I should be foisting upon Progarchy readers. But since brilliant, world-changing posts are difficult to write, I’ll settle for writing a long and highly subjective review of the new Soundgarden album, King Animal, to be followed later this week with my “Favorite Music of 2012”, which I’ve now narrowed down to less than a hundred releases.
But before the review, a note of thanks. First, to the amazing Brad Birzer, the Sleepless and Tireless One, whose leadership and energy have really made Progarchy.com into the fabulous, progressive site that it is (and, yes, that’s the only time I’ll write “fabulous, progressive site” in my life). Thank you, Brad. You took the flimsy whim of my fleeting brain drizzle and turned into a lively, robust, and darned fun site. Hat’s off! And, secondly, to everyone who has contributed, thank you. I’ve tried to read every single post, and I’ve never been disappointed. The variety of perspectives, insights, tastes, eccentricities, and musical journeys has been fabulous to behold. Kudos!
One problem I have writing a review of King Animal is that I am tempted to turn it into something far more: a rambling, semi-coherent tribute to one of my favorite bands ever, late discovered (c. 2005) but perpetually played since; a sprawling rant about the word “grunge” and why Nirvana is (ahem) an incredibly overrated band and Pearl Jam leaves me completely cold (although I acknowledge that group’s abilities); a circling soliloquy about how Soundgarden—despite not being “prog”—has managed to do something that great prog bands do: create music that is restless, impossible to pin down either musically or lyrically, and incorporate a bazillion different influences and styles while producing a sound that is so distinctive that any rock fan worth their salt will shout, “Soundgarden!” after hearing just a handful of notes of any given song.
I’ve now listened to King Animal over three dozen times, and here, in short, is my take: it is not a perfect album, but it is a great album (a 9 out of 10, if I used such a system). And when you consider the thirteen-year long break (sixteen years between new albums), the fact that most reuniting bands play it safe and easy, and that the band members have always had quite different musical perspectives and approaches, it is a really great album. And, in fact, it has received solid to glowing reviews, as it should. I won’t bother pointing to this or that review, although there have been some good ones. However, if you want a great track-by-track description, here the place to start. And if you want to listen to the album online, here you go. Or, if you just have time for a single, defining moment from the album, be sure to here the song, “Bones of Birds”, which is perhaps the most stunning track among several stunning tracks.
Chris Cornell, the legendary voice and primary lyricist for the band, said recently, “The album is a story. It has a lot of twists and turns.” That jumped off the page (well, screen) at me because as I’ve listened to the album and reflected a bit on the lyrics, I keep coming back to (ready for it, Brad?) my favorite T. S. Eliot poem, “Ash Wednesday”. That poem is about spiritual struggle and ascent, the tension between the past and all of its failures and demons, and the future, which is filled with hope (ultimately eternal and God given) as well as fraught with peril. It refers to twists and turns, to the mystical ladder of ascent:
At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.
At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.
One of the reasons Soundgarden has fascinated me over the past few years is because so many of their songs explore and reflect the spiritual struggle and existential crisis so evident in the modern/post-modern world. And rather than being trite, didactic, preachy, posturing, or narcissistic, those songs have tended to be both very honest and very fragmentary, as if Cornell (primarily) is looking into a shattered glass and trying to put it back together, like a mosaic both broken and coveted. Think, for example, of their huge (and unexpected) hit, “Black Hole Sun”, from the masterwork, Superunknown (1994):
In my eyes,/Indisposed,
In disguise/As no one knows.
Hides the face,/Lies the snake,
And the sun …
In my shoes,/A walking sleep,
And my youth/I pray to keep.
Heaven send Hell away,/No one
Sings like you anymore.
Like who, exactly? The brilliance of such lyrics is, again, the shard-like ambiguity and artful lack of full resolution. But there is no denying the longing, and how that longing is rooted in a quite Catholic perspective, even if it resists any and all systematic explication. Cornell was raised in a Catholic home, and while he had, by all accounts, a fairly miserable childhood (alcoholic father, etc.), he has repeatedly used Catholic motifs and more generally theistic language in his songs. Some of more overt references can be found on the first Audioslave album, as in the song, “Show Me How To Live”:
Someone get me a priest,
To put my mind to bed.
This ringing in my head,
Is this a cure ,
Or is this a disease?
Nail in my hand,
From my creator.
You gave me life,
Now show me how to live.
The song concludes with a subject that continually haunts Cornell’s songs and suffuses King Animal: morality and death. “And in your waiting hands I will land/And roll out of my skin. And in your final hours I will stand,/Ready to begin.” Likewise, the song, “Like A Stone”, refers to reading a “book full of death” and desiring peace, either in this life or the next (or, most likely, in both):
In your house I long to be
Room by room patiently
I’ll wait for you there
Like a stone
I’ll wait for you there
And then, in a lyric that makes a direct connection, for me, to the opening of King Animal, Cornell sings:
On my deathbed I will pray
To the gods and the angels
Like a pagan to anyone
Who will take me to heaven
To a place I recall
I was there so long ago
The sky was bruised
The wine was bled
And there you led me on
In “Been Away Too Long”, the opening track of King Animal, the lament is made that one can’t go home and then, “I’ve been away for too long/though I never really wanted to stay.” Musically, the song is (along with “Attrition”) one of my least favorite, redeemed partially by the spacy, vaguely industrial/Middle Eastern bridge, and the lyrics, especially this darkly comedic judgment of modern society: “This place has a special kind of falling apart/Like they put the whole thing together in the dark/And no one knows where the edge of the knife is/And no one knows what intelligent life is”. There are apparent references to struggles with substance abuse—”kilos through key-holes … tankards and flagons and snifters and flutes”—and the general theme is, if not set, at least hinted at: the soul is torn between the past and the present (and the future), the good and the bad, the temporal and the eternal.
The next two songs, “Non-State Actor” and “By Crooked Steps”, are built on some deep and bruising grooves, courtesy of the muscular, elastic work of drummer Matt Cameron (also drummer for Pearl Jam) and bassist Ben Shepherd. “Non-State Actor”, penned by Shepherd, is the most overtly political song of the bunch, although its exact perspective is typically hazy. I hesitate to even hazard a guess about particulars, but the song has some Soundgarden-ish notes of cynicism aimed toward the powers that be, along with a bit of resigned paranoia: “And we settle for a little bit more than everything.” However political it might be, the song has another level, hinting at the temptation to find ultimate answers in technocratic, temporal and violent solutions: “Bullets, guns, and missiles/a stone and a sling/a motherless country of thee I sing.” Such a temptation, if I might wax spiritual, appeals to all men, but in recent centuries has been the purview of those entities and individuals who have openly rejected and attacked Christianity, the Church, and divine grace, giving even more meaning to the term “non-state actor”.
With the third song, “Crooked Steps”, the album really hits its stride, with lead guitarist Kim Thayil, laying down a deceptively simple, crunchy, and distinctive riff and then issuing forth a variety of his patented air-hornish, bagpipe-like runs. Cornell’s lyrics are delivered from a first person perspective, but the exact voice is hard to locate. At times, it sounds like the Hound of Heaven: “I’m a ghost and a healer/I’m the shape of the hole inside your heart.” The echoes of Eliot come to fore again, in my hearing. “Crooked steps will taken me higher” wails Cornell, “I don’t care if you want to cry. I’m a soldier for hire/killing all you admire/and you live in denial”. And here is Eliot: “Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair/Climbing the third stair. … Although I do not hope to turn again/Although I do not hope/Although I do not hope to turn”.
The next three songs—”A Thousand Days Before”, “Blood on the Valley Floor”, and “Bones of Birds”—are as good as anything Soundgarden has ever recorded; together, they shape the complex and often conflicted emotional heart of “King Animal”. “A Thousand Days Before” finds Cornell bringing forth his apocalyptic side, with not only the millennial reference but also the image of the “sun and moon at war”. But just as “Blow Up the Outside World” from the underrated Down On the Upside (1996) was not about physically destroying the outside world but being free of the oppression of the outside world’s darkness, this song is about the inner conflicts that shape one’s spiritual landscape: “Born with a thousand little holes/And a tear to fill up every one/A thousand to ignore”. The grinding, dirge-like pulse of “Blood on the Valley Floor” brings to mind Superunknown‘s harrowing “Limo Wreck”—one of my favorite Soundgarden songs—both musically and lyrically. The song presents a desperate scene of genocide and senseless violence: “And the blood dries/while we spill/some more”. Specifics are, of course, not to be found. Is it a physical event, an inner violence, or a metaphor for a society or culture as a whole? My continuing impression is of hell itself, with the damned tumbling down to where “the smoke lies on the valley floor”.
When hope enters, in “Bones of Birds”, it is fragile and even frightening, with the shadow of mortality close at hand: “Time is my friend/til it ain’t/and runs out/and that is all that I have/til it’s gone”. Light is located in love and family, in the struggle to “build a home”. The inner struggle to persevere is captured brilliantly in the tug and pull melody, which drives ahead, then subsides, steadies, then pushes forward again. Is survival possible? The concluding answer is hesitant: “Probably … maybe”.
“Taree”, with lyrics by Cornell and music by Shepherd, was apparently inspired by boyhood memories of a magical place in the forests outside Seattle. Free of the city, the Unknown is palpable: “Though I can’t put my hands on you/I can feel you now”. There is a decidedly mystical quality to the lyrics, which mesh perfectly with Cornell’s previous references to returning home and the unnamed “ghost”: “I only know I’ve made it home/When I drown/In your ghost light.” The connection to the hit song, “Let Me Drown”, from Superunknown, seems fairly obvious:
Give up to greed, you don’t have to feed me
Give up to fate, you don’t have to need me
So let it go, let it go, won’t you let it
Drown me in you, drown me in you, drown me in you
Slip down the darkness to the mouth
Damn the water burn the wine
I’m going home for the very last time
But while the older song marries drowning with darkness, in “Taree” it is connected to light. (Both approaches, the theologian in me wants to note, have a rich tradition in Christianity in relation to baptism.) The reference to raising the road “to my titled shadow” continues the theme of spiritual searching and ascension. And that is picked up, wittingly or not, in “Attrition”, with lyrics by Shepherd: “On the cliff/Above the stormy waves/Can’t decide to climb or drown/Up is folly and down disgrace”. Belief in a better world and hope in something/Someone beyond this life can indeed appear to be folly for, as Eliot wrote, “the stair was dark”; this is the darkness of via negativa (or what in the Eastern tradition is called apophatic theology). These two songs, with their overt references to seeking in the wilds and above the ocean, also bring to mind Eliot’s musing that the logos is present everywhere, but can be difficult to find, to grasp, to know:
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
“Black Saturday” continues a tradition of Soundgarden songs about things black: black hole sun, black days, black rain. The journey continues—on the cusp of Sunday, the Christian holy day—but with no lack of second-guessing. “Kill me right away/If I start to get slow”, sings Cornell, anguished that he cannot remember “how to separate/the worm from the apple”. One wonders how much of this song (as well as others) was inspired by Cornell’s battle to overcome depression and alcohol abuse (as well as a failed first marriage) in between the disbanding of Soundgarden and the start of Audioslave? Regardless (as that personal history is quite secondary), the goal is made clear: death to self and a new life following. “Burn out any memory of me ever breathing/Until I’m born again/born again/born again”.
While “Black Saturday” is somewhat lackluster musically, the next cut, “Halfway There”, features a wonderful, steadily-building bass line that erupts into a banshee-ish chorus, surrounded by some marvelous, oddly tuned guitar licks. The song takes the measure of success and the lack of true contentment and happiness all around. Temptation lurks in the shadows: “I get an itch/And when I am scratching/Everything can go to hell.” And the shadows appear to be pressing in on faith and sight: “And how far is halfway there? I didn’t see you on the trail”. Is it a dark night of the soul? The dreams of worldly success referred to here is transformed into a nightmare in “Worse Dreams”, which describes the soul desperately clinging to hold on and survive in the midst of all things swirling and falling apart. “Everybody in/Sit down and keep on holding on”, Cornell exhorts, as he notes how the “black clouds drown” and the “rain is walking”.
The references to water are constant, but are especially important in this song and the final two cuts, “Eyelid’s Mouth” and “Rowing”. Those two songs are both outstanding, each featuring the exceptional rhythm section of Shepherd and Cameron, as well as call-and-response choruses, the latter being a somewhat unusual twist for Soundgarden. “Who let the water run down? (Cry internal)/Who let the river run dry? (Live internal)” And then, “through the eyelet comes unimagined light/unremembered sun.” Some sort of enlightenment has been achieved after all of the struggles and sorrows and doubts. What the unremembered sun is, exactly, isn’t defined, but I harken back, again, to Eliot:
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
Having broken through, at least partially, life still has to be lived, as the powerful, concluding song, “Rowing”, confesses: “Rowing is living/And living is hard/But living beats losing/All that we are/And all that we know of”. It is an astounding cut, as “heavy” as anything Soundgarden has produced, yet not in the typical sense of “heavy”. It opens with a slightly fuzzy, jaunty bass line, followed by Cornell singing over a droning chorus of Cornell overdubs. If there was any doubt about Cornell’s prowess and gifts as a singer, this song should answer them, with a wealth of gorgeous harmonies, paint-peeling screams, hair-raising falsettos, and subtle transitions. The song builds and builds, with a glorious wall of guitar, before finally releasing back into bass and vocals. The take away line, for me, is this: “Keep getting dirty/But I started out clean”. And if you know you were once clean, you also know you want to be clean.
With that in mind, in conclusion, here is a recent picture of Cornell as you’ve likely not seen him before: as godfather, taking his godson after the little lad was baptized and chrismated. Cornell’s second wife, Vicki, is Greek Orthodox, and apparently Cornell is as well. Interesting! In the end, King Animal proves that not only is Soundgarden back, the band is a vibrant creative force, with plenty to say and with the requisite energy, ability, and focus necessary to say/sing/play it.
• Also, see Soundgarden performing both new and older songs live on “Letterman”: