Going back on your word is never easy. In 2009 Chris Cornell, in the midst of a musical midlife crisis, did his best to rule out a Soundgarden reunion. As he promoted Scream, the Timbaland produced solo LP that would turn him into a laughing stock, Cornell expressed his fear that Soundgarden would only “tarnish their legacy” if they returned. Well guess what? They’re back and they’ve got a brand new album: King Animal.
Rather than meekly tip toeing around the issue, they boldly diffuse any scepticism with the blunt and boisterous opener “I’ve Been Away For Too Long”. It’s the first and last word on the matter. No head scratching. No dithering. No baggage. Soundgarden are back, doing what they do best, and we are all going to pretend the last 17 years didn’t happen. In truth, it’s not a tough ask. The musical landscape might have changed, the Seattle icons may have sprouted a few grey hairs, but they slip back into the saddle with remarkable ease.
If anything “I’ve Been Away For Too Long” is a red herring, it’s too immediate and too spritely. Soundgarden are a crushing, tortured outfit. They aren’t immune to swift rockers, “Attrition” is ironically slight and addictive, but King Animal prefers the slow grind. Cornell rasps and the riffs churn as Soundgarden ride a series of deep grooves. “By Crooked Steps” captures this juxtaposition perfectly: the rhythm daggers with speedy persistence, as Cornell elongates each syllable to its most strained extreme.
When the band take a break from grinding their instruments into the dust, the mix is reassuringly murky. “Halfway There” and “Bones Of Birds” deftly demonstrate Soundgarden’s light touch, showcasing the kind of nuanced, understated brooding that puts a generation of moribund imitators (Nickelback, Puddle Of Mudd, et al) to shame. It might be refreshing to see grunge done right, but King Animal isn’t faultless. Cornell falters, his vocal is pained and emotive, but lyrically he struggles. “Non-State Actor” feels forced, and the singer routinely drops awkward couplets and forced rhymes (“I’m addicted to feeling, stealing love isn’t stealing”). Still, like Sabbath before them, Soundgarden thrive on the strength of their tone and the irresistible nature of the grooves. Whenever a track threatens to become pedestrian a bruising rhythm pushes its way to the surface or a tightly coiled bass line emerges, luring the listener back in.
Chris Cornell never had Eddie Vedder’s, let alone Kurt Cobain’s, ear for a pop song. Soundgarden were not great entertainers, and no amount of time spent wandering the wilderness was going to transform them into an explosive, joyful outfit. Instead, King Animal thrives on shrewdly composed gloom. Heads down, Soundgarden toil away at their instruments, squeezing out every last drop of torment and presenting an image of hard-wrought resolution. The brilliant album closer “Rowing” captures King Animal’s essential aesthetic: “Moving is breathing, and breathing is life…Don’t know where I’m going, I just keep on rowing.” The band’s big comeback album lurches to a quiet and despairing conclusion. It’s strangely reassuring, and it makes perfect sense: Soundgarden are still struggling onwards, plumbing the depths of personal suffering – it’s as if the last 17 years simply didn’t happen.
Buy If:you want to see Soundgarden pick up where they left off.
Skip If:you thought Soundgarden were too moribund in 1995.
Best Track:“Bones Of Birds”
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