Someone forgot to inform Soundgarden that grunge is dead. Maybe that’s because, media pronouncements aside, it isn’t. Though traditional metal is as rusty as the studs on Motley Crue’s old costumes, grunge remains the voice for alienated suburban adolescents — those underdogs who need their sense of doom set to wrecking-ball power chords. For that audience, Soundgarden are ready, willing, and able to serve: ”I’m getting all depressed/I’m just a baby who looks like a boy!” yowls singer Chris Cornell on Down on the Upside, the band’s fifth assault.
As heralded in prerelease band interviews, Down on the Upside is even darker and sludgier than its predecessor, 1994’s supercharged Superunknown; there is nothing as easily graspable as that album’s ”Black Hole Sun,” and it provides few concise hooks. It’s music as primordial ooze, with a throbbing backbeat. When the band does latch on to a hook, like the stadium-ready riff in the anti-conformity tirade ”No Attention,” it seems to instantly tire of it and contort its melody and tempo. Deviant, yes, but at least Soundgarden are on their musical toes. Few bands since Led Zeppelin have so crisply mixed instruments both acoustic and electric. With its frenetic mandolin, ”Ty Cobb” (which has nothing to do with the irascible baseball great) is something like metal bluegrass. And throughout, drummer Matt Cameron, with his busy, kinetic style, propels the melodies in a way few tub slammers have since Keith Moon.
Upside has its downside. The album was produced by the band, and like many self-produced efforts, it shows. With arrangements that crest and fall to the point where a road map would have helped, the overlong (16-song) album is often unwieldy and could have benefited from judicious trimming. Also, in avoiding outright anthems, it stints on metal catharsis — which is, after all, the very purpose of this most purging of genres.
Still, several of the album’s sonic erections, like the testy ”Never Named,” or the mesmerizingly slothlike ”Tighter & Tighter,” are as powerful as anything the band has done. And no matter the song, Chris Cornell never stops bellowing hysterical bummers like ”Born without a friend and bound to die alone!” or ”I can’t live when it lives! It won’t live if I die!” as if he were battling a bloodthirsty alien in a sci-fi musical. Soundgarden aren’t merely in touch with their inner child. The sound of that child’s wail remains the greatest thrill of all. B+