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 soundgarden_kinganimalrestless, 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”: Continue reading “A sprawling, highly subjective review of Soundgarden’s “King Animal””