And now the final piece of the Soundgarden trilogy in memory of Chris Cornell. I felt it would be bad taste to publish this too soon, so I’m publishing this long after the end of actual Soundgarden week here on the site.
Chris Cornell, what a legend. One of Chris Cornell’s less acknowledged until now was the man’s lyrical abilities. When I was growing up listening to the 90’s grunge bands, I always enjoyed how Cornell was much like Weiland and Cobain in using bizarrely specific references and seemingly nonsensical imagery together in a way that simply sounded cool, without having to give much serious thought to what was going on. That was a strong point in that whole grunge genre, even when the songwriting had a serious message underlying the whole thing. Like Jeremy biting a recess lady’s breast, or electrolytes smelling like semen, Cornell was looking California and feeling Minnesota. The incoherence of some of these band’s lyrics could match this article’s content so far, but man did it sound fucking amazing. But let’s get onto what this is about now.
Chris Cornell had a penchant for various reoccurring themes in his lyrics. Chris Cornell often sang about some of these wildly diverse topics in many different songs throughout his career, and he sounded pretty great doing these, especially in Soundgarden.
- Birds, specifically dead birds and usually killed by Chris Cornell (Like Suicide, Killing Birds, Bones of Birds)
- Indians (Into the Void – Sealth, Spoonman, Cochise)
- The color black (Black Hole Sun, Black Saturday, Fell on Black Days, Black Rain)
- Rain (Black Rain, Steel Rain, Black Hole Sun)
- Jesus (Jesus Christ Pose, 4th of July, this Chris Cornell Jesus candle being sold at a corner store)
- Snakes (Pretty Noose, Black Hole Sun, Get on the Snake)
But unfortunately it seems that the number one most common lyrical theme in Chris Cornell lyrics is suicide. Chris Cornell sang about suicide in an astounding amount of his work and while at that time it might have seemed like the thing to do and just usual Chris Cornell, this theme lasted for, well, up until the very end I guess. There it was this whole time. Chris Cornell’s lyrics, which in his time were very much given second thoughts to the powerful delivery and sound of his voice and the great guitar riffs and band work he was surrounded by, actually did paint some very dark places that someone could visualize by actually reading what he was saying this whole time. And this isn’t meant to be some sort of sensationalist, throwaway, intentionally trolling piece of writing, I really do want to address what I think are Soundgarden’s darkest, most bleak songs, because these songs are great and they do get me by in my darkest times too. They’re haunting and have taken on new meaning for this fan.
5. Pretty Noose – Down on the Upside (1996)
Yeah… This is hard to really comprehend these days. While I know that this song is basically Soundgarden doing their, at the time, new grunge psychedelic pop thing with a big old catchy first single of a rocker, yeah. You can’t get past what this song is called anymore. It’s fucking weird, like that Nirvana song “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die” from the Beavis and Butthead soundtrack. The part at the end of that video, while nothing as off-putting as Cornell’s “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart” solo video, has a part where a rope drags across a dead chick’s thigh imposed with Cornell’s face and it’s weird to look at now. Yeah, that was the 90’s and of course this was also banned from MTV like “Jesus Christ Pose” when nailing a tomato on a cross got you banned did, but it’s fucking odd. So is him crashing into a bulldozer at the end of Audioslave’s “Show Me How to Live” video now. I guess these videos and song titles just kind of take on new meanings these days. I know this song’s lyrics just kind of seem like the Cornell sounding cool with weird phrases and great vocal delivery magic, but phrases like “Pretty noose is pretty pain” are different now.
4. Burden in My Hand – Down on the Upside (1996)
It might seem weird that Cornell’s turn to these dark, suicidal referencing lyrics started popping up in the band’s most successful period, but that seemed to be where they shined the most and were put on full display. We know “Burden in my Hand” is a 90’s take on a murder ballad and was one of Soundgarden’s most well known and regarded tunes. It’s an amazing song. But that second verse is just disturbing to give a listen to now. “Kill your heath and kill yourself and kill everything you love, and if you live you can fall to pieces and suffer with my ghost”. Now not to even bring in the pointless reference of Audioslave’s “Cochise” lyrics of “I drink to health while you kill yourself” and also the even more tangential Scott Weiland Velvet Revolver self fulfilling prophecy “Fall to Pieces” which basically told the future, that lyric is so bizarrely weird to hear now that it almost sounds like a projection. It seems like a really specific thing for someone to say that would later take their own life, a sort of cry for help. These are the sort of strange things that get picked upon when re-evaluating someone’s past work and I guess I can’t help but point it out. “Burden in my Hand” is a goddamn Soundgarden classic and one that should be played at high volume should it come upon your sound playing device, it’s a song that tons of people love and now it seems much more twisted.
3. Blow Up the Outside World – Down on the Upside (1996)
I’m really not purposely picking hit Soundgarden singles in their career in doing this article. I’m also not purposely picking my favorite Soundgarden songs in their career in doing this article. It just so happens that some of Soundgarden’s lyrics that have taken on pitch black, warped new meanings with Cornell’s death are contained in some of their most well known songs. “Nothing seems to kill me, no matter how hard I try”, and the lyrical theme here seems to just expand on this to the point of literally exploding everything outside. Fuck. This song has become a million times more depressing and defeating than it already sounded, and the lounging and subdued music for the verses just serves to let it explode in the chorus with Cornell, uh, raging against the machine. Had to make that shitty ass joke there. This song’s deceptively casual guitar work that has the Soundgarden sound expansion to mellow, psychedelic poppy Beatles influenced stuff on full frontal, just totally masks a hugely resentful anthem about disposition. I’m so glad that this was actually the first Soundgarden song I ever remember hearing. But it is also yet another song that takes on a much realer atmosphere in relistens now.
2. The Day I Tried to Live – Superunknown (1994)
This is just a self defeating anthem of powerlessness, everything against what it sounds to be when you actually look at the lyrics. The only band that could convincingly deliver such a song with such vocal devotion in the sound and such musical precision and still send it to hit status was Soundgarden and in the year 1994. This is definitely one of Soundgarden’s finest moments and probably one of music’s best moments in recorded history, such a powerful and galvanizing song that could destroy anything in it’s path. And yet behind such a power filled performance lies what the lyrics actually do make abundantly clear: depression and defeat. Cornell absolutely wails to his greatest when he delivers out a line like “The day I tried to win, I wallowed in the blood and mud with all the other pigs”, and the way he fluctuated on “I woke the same as any other day except you know I should have stayed in bed” to just belt out that last part. And then it concludes with “I knew that I was a liar, just like you”. This was a big single, the single between “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun” in fact. It doesn’t ever explicitly reference suicide, though it definitely references taking satisfaction in watching other people die, but I can attest that sometimes listening to this song after having a bad day just might be a cathartic experience. This song, when listening to it now, seems like the most cathartic in the Soundgarden discography and just resonates in a totally different way now.
1. Zero Chance – Down on the Upside (1996)
This song was already one of the bleakest and most horrible outlooks on existence ever vocalized, but now it’s just fucking disturbing. This was Soundgarden’s seemingly first attempt at going for an acoustically based song on a studio album, worth mentioning I guess. Here, the verses might seem typically self defeating of the Cornell lyrics of the time, but the chorus is probably the single most depressing thing he ever had to say in his lyrics. “Say if you look hard enough, find your way back home, born without a friend and bound to die alone”. Yeah, this is the chorus this song builds around and comes back to. Holy fucking shit. I don’t have anything else to say. This is now the single most depressing thing Cornell ever did and it is very hard to listen to. It’s an amazing song, one of Soundgarden’s best, but it’s also their single blackest hole in a sun’s worth of shining examples of great music. Horrible sentence I just wrote there, I ended this weird and dark article on a shitty joke but it needed a change of pace.
Why was “Like Suicide” not included? That song was explicitly described by Cornell as being about the time a bird flew into his window and was lying on the ground dying, so he killed it with a brick. The man sang about this a lot.
Thank you for dealing with Soundgarden Week and my strange take if you made it this far. We’ll be back with another article soon.