Thursday, November 20, 2014

Song of the Day: Soundgarden - Black Hole Sun (1994)

When I think of the music of 1994, this will probably always be the first song that comes to my mind. While I unfortunately don't have a chart documenting exactly how many minutes I spent watching every music video on MTV rotation that year, I'd be shocked if this wasn't in first place by almost double whatever came in second. I honestly might have seen this video an average of three times a day in summer '94. It. Was. Everywhere. Everywhen. All the time. And that's cool, because it's a great song. 

I'd never heard of Soundgarden before this video, but I distinctly remember finding out they were also from Seattle was the first time I realized that the Seattle Scene was a quote-unquote thing. They became the de facto Band of the Summer that year for my friends and I, and the only reason Superunknown wasn't the first CD I bought is because my cousin had already given me a copy. In the same way "Smoke on the Water" was the first guitar riff everyone learned in 1974, "Spoonman" filled that role for everyone I knew that started playing guitar in the mid-'90s. 

Superunknown is the prototypical alternative album of the era: it's at least 20 minutes too long, has five totally transcendent songs, five completely forgettable songs that you skipped so often you literally forget what they sound like, and you almost always turned it off when it still had three or four songs left to go. It also has the standard-for-the-time over-produced booklet with lyrics that are difficult to read because they're obscured by the dark/cool graphics that we spent way too much time staring at, like the upside-down-pink-baby-silhouette. 

Superunknown is nearly 70 minutes long, but almost no one actually spends that much time with the album. Eight of the fifteen songs pass the five-minute mark, which is ridiculous considering they're almost all standard verse-chorus-verse affairs. Here's the Superunknown that should have existed: Axe the last five songs entirely, because they mostly suck. Then cut about a minute out of all the others, and switch the first two tracks. Now you have a ten-song/40-minute album that starts with "My Wave" and ends with "The Day I Tried To Live," which is a perfect album closer. That album would be remembered as one of the undisputed best of the '90s. Instead, everyone remembers Superunknown as an album they really loved twenty years ago, and they're not sure why they never listen to anymore. 

As it is, "Black Hole Sun" is really the only song on the album that earns its run time. It grows climactic instead of repetitive. It's Soundgarden at their most Zeppelin-esque, with the distorted riff echoing "No Quarter," and Matt Cameron's thundering drum re-entrance after the song's false ending is one of the better John Bonham impressions ever recorded. The whole thing is sort of like an alternate version of "Stairway" filtered through the more dystopian songwriting style of the Physical Graffiti era. 

The video still makes no sense, and considering people my age saw it enough times to memorize every frame, trust me when I say that we would have made sense of it if there were sense to make. But one thing that's great about music videos is that it's the perfect medium to experiment with non-narrative filmmaking. Music videos don't need to make sense, they only need to evoke feeling and emotion. The individual shots of "Black Hole Sun" don't really add up to any story, but they do create the sensation of impending doom to an otherwise normal setting, and really, creating a sensation is all a music video should generally be trying for. 

If every band has a defining image, that image for Soundgarden is undoubtedly the band playing on that yellow hill, hypnotically staring up to the sky, with those ominous clouds racing around behind them. 

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

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