Friday, March 8, 2019

25 years ago today: Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails

1994 was a great year for me because that's when I started really discovering and learning to play music, around age 13. And 25 years ago today, March 8, 1994, was a great day for music, because that's when Soundgarden released Superunknown, and Nine Inch Nails released The Downward Spiral.

These weren't just some of the better records by a couple heavy, alternative bands of the mid-'90s. They were that, but they were something more. Listening to them now brings us back to a time when a rock band could be massively successful while daring to break out of formulas and challenge listeners.

Here are 5 highlights from each album.

"Spoonman" is the first Soundgarden song I ever heard, so to me it will always feel like the essence of Soundgarden and the starting point for the band, even though it was the 8th song on their 4th album. I love the jarring juxtapositions of different keys and time signatures.

The song was about a California- and Seattle-based street performer, Artis the Spoonman, who’s seen and heard performing in the video. He’s the only person we see in motion; the band members are shown only in photos.

Chris Cornell said:

It's more about the paradox of who he is and what people perceive him as. He's a street musician, but when he's playing on the street, he is given a value and judged completely wrong by someone else. They think he's a street person, or he's doing this because he can't hold down a regular job. They put him a few pegs down on the social ladder because of how they perceive someone who dresses differently. The lyrics express the sentiment that I much more easily identify with someone like Artis than I would watch him play. . . .

I think we were fairly smart with "Spoonman" in that you really don't see us that much in the video. You see various pictures of us, but it's not quite the same as having us in your living room all the time. We're trying to maintain some degree of mystique about Soundgarden, I guess. I remember back when I was a kid, long before MTV, and the only way to see my favorite bands was to go to their concerts. It was an incredible experience. MTV has helped a lot of bands, but they've also helped rob a lot of groups of that special mystique. It's tough when you can see a great rock band on TV one second, then hit the clicker and be watching a soap opera or a sitcom the next. That's what rock and roll has become for some people.

"Fell on Black Days" seems to peel off the heavy outer surface of Soundgarden and reveal something more contemplative underneath. After Chris Cornell died at age 52, it was hard to hear him sing, over and over again: "How would I know that this would be my fate?"

Within one week after Chris Cornell's death in 2017, I listened to Soundgarden's last 4 albums straight through, then listed my 20 favorite Soundgarden songs. I wrote:
I . . . felt overwhelmed by the ocean of extraordinary material — relentlessly innovative and challenging, often jagged and angular, mostly heavy and dark, occasionally with gentle or bright spots, but never tranquil, always disturbed and searching for something better.
I ranked "The Day I Tried to Live" their #2 song, and their best from Superunknown. Cornell explained what he meant by the song:
It's about trying to step out of being patterned and closed off and reclusive, which I've always had a problem with. It's about attempting to be normal and just go out and be around other people and hang out. I have a tendency to sometimes be pretty closed off and not see people for long periods of time and not call anyone. It's actually, in a way, a hopeful song. Especially the lines "One more time around/Might do it," which is basically saying, "I tried today to understand and belong and get along with other people, and I failed, but I'll probably try again tomorrow." A lot of people misinterpreted that song as a suicide-note song. Taking the word "live" too literally. "The Day I Tried to Live" means more like the day I actually tried to open up myself and experience everything that's going on around me as opposed to blowing it all off and hiding in a cave.

"Black Hole Sun" is by far the band's best-known song, which can make it hard to listen to with fresh ears. The song has a clear Beatles influence: the verse sounds like the chords could have been written by Paul McCartney and the vocal melody by John Lennon. Soundgarden's lead guitarist, Kim Thayil, once said:
We looked deep down inside the very core of our souls and there was a little Ringo sitting there. Oh sure, we like telling people it's John Lennon or George Harrison; but when you really look deep inside of Soundgarden, there's a little Ringo wanting to get out.

"Head Down" (written by the bassist, Ben Sheperd) is an engimatic departure from the usual hard rock of Soundgarden. Acoustic and electric guitars, bass, and drums intermingle in delightfully unexpected ways.

After Nine Inch Nails debuted in 1989 with the relatively accessible Pretty Hate Machine, then put out a sledgehammer of a record with the Broken EP in 1992, The Downward Spiral was a relevatory merging of the poppier and heavier elements of NIN, with a more exquisitely pieced-together production. The concept album about a suicidal man starts out with the hard-driving "Mr. Self Destruct," sounding not far from Broken. But then the second song, "Piggy," lets us know this is not just another Broken. The eerie synth tones floating over a cool-jazz rhythm section, providing the incongruous backdrop for the singer's obsessing over how "nothing can stop me now," sound like nothing we had ever heard before from NIN.

NIN is virtually a one-man band consisting of Trent Reznor in the studio, but the frenetic drums that disrupt the jazz vibe of "Piggy" are the only time he played real drums on the record. A different drummer gives an amazing performance of the song in this live video.

"March of the Pigs" is so heavy you might not notice that most of the heavy parts are in 7/8 time (so you can steadily count to 7 and keep following the beat — except when he throws in an extra beat). The heaviness subsides into a rare moment of brightness on this otherwise bleak album: "And doesn't it make you feel better? . . . And everything is all right."

"Closer" is probably the most famous NIN song, even though one of the main words in the chorus had to be muted when it was played on the radio. (Here's the unedited version of the video — I can't embed it on the blog because it has fleeting artistic nudity.)

"The Becoming" uses disturbing noises to evoke "this noise inside my head."

The 13th song, "The Downward Spiral," describes the suicide. Then the album comes to a close with the slow, stark "Hurt," a song of staggering emotion. The most often quoted lyrics are probably the first lines, about self-harm. I prefer to focus on the hopeful last verse, where the singer (the ghost of the man who just killed himself?) looks back at his life:
If I could start again
A million miles away
I will keep myself
I would find a way
And wow, the combination of music and video on that last line . . . !

I remember having a conversation with two friends of mine who were both big NIN fans, and one of them commented that NIN is so depressing. The other friend and I immediately and almost in unison responded that we don't feel depressed at all listening to NIN. Precisely because Trent Reznor is working through so many negative feelings so intensely, his music can be profoundly energizing in a way that can make cheerful music seem beside the point. ("And doesn't it make you feel better?")

In my post on my favorite Soundgarden songs, I quoted Chris Cornell expressing a similar sentiment: "I’ve always liked depressing music because a lot of times listening to it when you’re down can actually make you feel less depressed." I'm sorry he couldn't find that kind of uplift on the terrible night when he killed himself right after Soundgarden played its last concert.

But I'm glad NIN is "still right here," playing famously great live shows after a remarkable 30 years, keeping some of the most strangely beautiful music of 1994 alive.