Pearl Jam's Ten and the generational despair of Nirvana's Nevermind. I'll now conclude my twentieth anniversary of grunge series by dusting off my MP3s of Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger (Alice In Chains wouldn't release Dirt for almost another year).
Just like with all the bands I've just mentioned, Badmotorfinger wasn't Soundgarden's first release by any means. But again, 1991 was their year of destiny. It was the year they'd make their best album so far, and the year that a large section of America's youth would be ready to listen. With Nirvana and Pearl Jam winning huge audiences on MTV and getting lots of radio airplay, broadcasters were hungry for anything out of Seattle. And though Soundgarden were musically far more reminiscent of Led Zeppelin-type heavy metal, they still seemed to fit the bill so far as the new 'Seattle sound' went.
In many ways, lead vocalist and main lyricist Chris Cornell was from a similar 'middle class' background to Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. His father was a pharmacist and his mother an accountant, but a certain level of material comfort certainly didn't mean personal comfort for Chris. As an adolescent he suffered from more than the usual social anxiety, and would retreat from a scary world to listen to music on his own, and drink heavily. When he reached adulthood, Cornell found work as a seafood wholesaler and sous chef in a restaurant. He would spend his days "wipe[ing] up the slime and throw[ing] away the fish guts", but made barely enough money to pay the rent, and would often resort to taking food from his job. At that stage - as with so many others in Seattle - it seemed like the American Dream was going into reverse, and indeed that is a common lyrical theme in Cornell's best work.
Earlier in 1991, Cornell had added his stunning vocal talents to the first and only album by Temple of the Dog - a grunge 'supergroup' set up in tribute to Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone, a close friend who had become the first prominent grunger - and sadly far from the last - to die from heroin addiction. The death and decay of Seattle was among the elements which were spun into the cryptic lyrics for Badmotorfinger, and while Cornell evasively claimed it was about "creating colourful images", lead guitarist Kim Thayil provided a better description, that it is: "like reading a novel [about] man's conflict with himself and society, or the government, or his family, or the economy, or anything."
If the lyrics were somewhat arcane, the sound wasn't exactly straightforward either. Using unusual - for grunge at least - guitar tunings and time signatures, Badmotorfinger is a jumble of styles, although they gel well, creating a contemplative yet somehow also frantic mood. Rusty Cage gets things off to a fast and furious, andrenaline-fuelled start, as fraught verses war with defiant choruses, before Outshined slows things down again with its exploration of emotional bipolarity.
After the staggering and swaggering of Slaves and Bulldozers comes absolute album highlight Jesus Christ Pose. Rather than being a condemnation of Christianity itself - Cornell had been sent to Catholic school by his father - it is a reference to those famous people who imitate the crucifixion to suggest their own martyrdom. The vocals are brimful of indignance at such arrogance, while Thayil's riffs and the drums of Matt Cameron combine to devastating effect.
Later on, Holy Water continues the religious referencing, condemning those who try to force their beliefs on others, and Drawing Flies skips along at a pace belying its focus on writers' block. Closer New Damage is a majestically doomy paean to the "new world order" that President George Bush Snr had recently declared, and it comes with an apocalyptic warning which seems extremely far-sighted right now: "The wreck is going down. Get out before you drown".
Arguably, even better was to come on 1994's Superunknown, but Badmotorfinger certainly merits its place alongside Ten, Nevermind, and later Dirt, with its anthems for the doomed youth of the 1990s.