Primarily associated with the Seattle grunge era of the early '90s, Soundgarden always stood apart from their peers. Where Nirvana and Pearl Jam were brooding and angsty, Soundgarden was loud, always choosing a metal scream over a morose drone. Led by the otherworldly vocals of frontman Chris Cornell, Soundgarden also were a cut above with their thought provoking and often provocative lyrics. Touching on politics, religion, and individuality, Soundgarden brought some of the most poetically potent lyrics in the grunge game. Here are five examples of their best work.
The first single from Soundgarden's 1991 breakthrough album BadMotorFinger, “Jesus Christ Pose” never found the chart success of later singles like “Outshined”, but it has remained a fan favorite for years. Coming at the end of a run of scandals involving televangelists in the late '80s, the ferocious take down of those who exploit religion for profit found a welcome audience. It also became a rally cry for many anti-censorship advocates.
“Arms held out in your Jesus Christ pose.
Thorns and shroud like it's the coming of the Lord.
And I swear to you, that I would never feed you pain.
But you're staring at me like I'm driving in the nails.”
More subdued and cerebral than the metal shot of BadMotorFinger, 1994's Superunknown only grew Soundgarden's star, producing a number of hits. “Fell on Bad Days” was the fifth single from that album and climbed to #4 on the Modern Rock charts. The feeling of depression in the face of success, of impending failure even at the height of success, struck a chord with many fans and Cornell's tortured wail drove home the lyrics like no one else could. “Fell on Black Days” became one of the band's most popularly shared videos in the wake of Cornell's death.
“I'm a searchlight soul they say,
but I can't see it in the night.
I'm only faking when I get it right.
'Cause I fell on black days.
How would I know that this could be my fate?”
The grunge era provided a counterpoint to the “sex and drugs” era of hair metal by showing itself willing to tackle political and social issues head on. One early example from Soundgarden is “Hands All Over.” The second single from 1990's Louder than Love, “Hands All Over” tackled the human habit of taking something beautiful and defiling it out of “love.”
“Hands all over the inland forest.
In a striking motion trees fall down,
like dying soldiers.
Yeah, like dying soldiers.
Coming on the heels of their breakout radio single “Outshined”, “Rusty Cage” was an instant hit for Soundgarden. Less driving metal than the previous two singles, “Rusty Cage” saw Soundgarden experimenting with changing time signatures, giving “Rusty Cage” a bit of a funk metal groove. The lyrics, about the desire to break loose from conformity and forge your own path, was the kind of angsty cry to individualism that many an early '90s teenager was craving. The song was famously covered by Johnny Cash in 1996.
“When the forest burns along the road,
like God's eyes in my headlights.
When the dogs are looking for their bones.
And it's raining icepicks on your steel shores.
I'm gonna break, I'm gonna break my,
I'm going to break my rusty cage... and run.”
Soundgarden's biggest hit is also its most lyrically beautiful. For “Black Hole Sun”, the third single from Superunknown toned down his signature screams for a bluesy drawl. Frontman Chris Cornell was going for a surreal, almost dreamlike feel with the sometimes nonsensical lyrics. But buried within the enigmatic lines are passages that have been interpreted both as deeply sad and eternally hopeful.
“Stuttering, cold and damp,
steal the warm wind, tired friend.
Times are gone for honest men,
and sometimes far too long for snakes.”