When Soundgarden released their third album Badmotorfinger in 1991, the Soviet union was on its last gasp, the first Gulf War had begun, apartheid was being repealed in South Africa, Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested for eating humans and publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell was found floating in the Atlantic Ocean. On the cultural front, Super Nintendo was released in the US and on television, viewers had slopped up on their collective plate such dross as Beverley Hills 90210, Major Dad and Herman’s Head. But it wasn’t all horrendous; there was a sense that something a little more edgy and challenging was in the pipeline with Twin Peaks, Terminator 2 and of course Soundgarden’s seminal grunge album Badmotorfinger.
Soundgarden are planning to reissue Badmotorfinger on 18 November as a 25th anniversary present to the world and is slated to land on Black Friday (a massive shopping day in the US following Thanksgiving). The obvious question is does Badmotorfinger still represent a gift you’d like to receive or is it worthy of a re-gifting rather than a reissue?
While attempting to buy some seminal albums for my daughter the other day I discovered that albums like New Order’s Substance were out of production and instead had been replaced by a weird Joy Division/New Order hybrid album. Rather than reissue classic albums the plan appears to be to ‘value add’ i.e. to cobble stuff together and make it fit. And it appears that’s what will occur with Badmotorfinger, which is set to include some b-sides and live material and which is also being remixed.
But how do the tracks hold up? If you wanted to grab the listener by the short and curlies nice and early then you’d be hard pressed to find a better album opener than ‘Rusty Cage’. It does what it says on the label and introduces a rusty dirge that sounds like it could be the beginning of an awful brain worm that might visit you during a fever, that is until the drums suddenly canter in and the bass and guitar starts layering to create a superb rolling hook. Then arrives Chris Cornell with a rich lyric talent that your grandmother would reluctantly have to concede was fucking superb – disappointingly so. The music is like a continual ride on a chopper with never ending bends and road tricks. Cornell’s vocals don’t slavishly follow the tempo (although they’re not discordant) but travel over the musical terrain like a helicopter. The combination is still electrifying 25 years later.
‘Outshined’ is a moment for Cornell to showcase his songwriting and vocal dexterity and much of the song is structured in a way that downplays the musicality, and in fact the bridge is the nicest part of the song instrumentally. Written by Cornell it’s a personal song about swinging moods but can stand in as the bands unofficial anthem and reflects to a large extent the frustration of the Seattle band who were ‘outshined’ by other lesser beings and hadn’t yet arrived, in spite of their evident talent which they definitely pressed into service in Badmotorfinger.
Track three, ‘Slaves and Bulldozers’, is a longer, heavier number giving the band and Cornell their head and hands—allowing them to sleep comfortably at night as heavy rock McCoys. Cornell goes from oceanic depths to high and pitchy realms, like the new Ian Gillan.
‘Jesus Christ Pose’ is the pick of the album. The introduction is a loose chaosmos of guitar pluckings until we arrive at a series of pointed guitar interventions that sound like screaming birds (in a good way), then to a smooth drum and bass—some more deft layering—and then the intro of Cornell; although the layers aren’t finished by a long shot. The lyrics when they arrive a minute in engage right from the get-go ‘And you stare at me, In your Jesus Christ pose, Arms held out, Like you’ve been carrying a load’. At a crucial point of the lyrical build the guitars come in again in sharp sorties that is just brilliant to behold. With its visceral power this brilliantly crafted song makes a human know that they are embodied and who’s in charge.
Space precludes me from going through the rest of the songs on the album but you’ve already heard the best of them. The album’s quality is heavily front loaded and the back end can really start to drone on like Woodstock guitars without much variation in tempo, layering and energy which gave the first half of the album such dash and elan. ‘Room a Thousand Years Wide’ is an exemplar of this rambling style and at one point includes a saxophone which turns a ponderous song from boring to awful. While I have a strong dislike for record companies junking orslicing and dicing classic albums, in this instance I think it might make sense for Sub Pop to be tacking some ballast to the end of the reissue in order to give it some balance/interest at the back end.
Notwithstanding this problem, Badmotorfinger is a massively important album and its shortcomings are outweighed by the moments of excellence. That being said, it’s not a total album—it feels at times like an album of two parts; some very well engineered and produced tracks plus some rambling and flat filler—and in this day and age it’s probably something which would be picked apart for meat and the remaining carcass thrown in the bin. Whether people think it’s worth purchasing as a reissue might very much depend on whether Sub Pop attach some flotsam and jetsam or some decent tracks to the end of the album.