It was easy to decide the new Soundgarden album was rubbish – right up until listening to it. The obvious, over-hyped “comeback” album probably never stood a chance for many and the easiest way to hang on to that opinion is to never listen to it. But once you dive in it’s a confusing swim.
The self conscious opener, Been Away Too Long is a good-enough rock song – but is it good-enough because there’s a paucity of decent rock bands these days doing songs that are good-enough (or in most cases never good enough). This song has a crunch to its riff and if you check for vitals then you’ll find a living, breathing Soundgarden song – even if it’s a little overly pleased with itself for pointing out that the band is back and smugly attempts to justify some of the really stupid things Chris Cornell has done with his time off (that being anything more than one Audioslave album and his last – horrific – solo album).
It’s not a song that stands up to repeat plays. The more you listen, the bigger the cringe.
And so the album continues on – often proving that it is Soundgarden; that all the signs are there, Cornell sounds good singing this material – in that he should be fronting a rock band with that voice. And here he is. And it’s nice to have Matt Cameron’s drumming behind him (and around him) and there are a few oily gasps from Kim Thayil’s guitar too. Something I believe the world has missed.
But the songs run out long before their running time does and the further down the album you make it the more you realise that this might as well be just another Audioslave album/Cornell project.
He’s good. Soundgarden is good. This album is not great.
But then, it’s unfair to expect Superunknown or Badmotorfinger or Louder Than Love. Those are the great Soundgarden albums. This is not in that league.
This is not by any means necessary but it’s also not embarrassing. It does make sense as a 16-year late follow on from Down On The Upside. And it will get gushed over by a new generation of fans. And by many of the old fans who are sure that it’s just a great thing to have them back.
I prefer Cornell doing this over anything he’s done post-Soundgarden. I liked bits of Audioslave but was never convinced it was anything other than a gimmick. I liked bits of his first two solo albums but he was playing the singer-in-search-of-a-song role even if he didn’t know it. And his acoustic solo songbook shows, while good, have him over-revered by people so sure they’re seeing grunge’s equivalent of the stripped down Johnny Cash-covers-Nine Inch Nails or Bob Marley-singing-Redemption Song pan-generational folk-stab glory.
The need for a Soundgarden reunion was very clear when I heard Cornell singing John Lennon’s Imagine and receiving a standing ovation.
This guy is one of the great rock singers. He has a voice that rivals Plant and Gillan and Astbury and Morrison and so many of the great rock/metal singers. And it’s being put to decent use on this album. But no one in the band remembers how to write great songs.
In the end the truth is this is the logical/credible album that a reunited Soundgarden was always going to make. If they cherry-pick from it at a live show and then play the best material from their great albums it will be a good show. And then when fans, old and new, go home from the show and hear this album they’ll realise it’s about as good as post-Sonic Temple Cult or anything from Pearl Jam after No Code. That is to say good enough to not be embarrassing but not crucial at all.
The more I listen to King Animal the harder I find it to make it across the finish line; it’s top-heavy but also in terms of actual heavy – as a concept, a sound – it’s nowhere near heavy enough.