Since their breakup in 1997 the rock titans of Soundgarden have, for the most part, stayed out of the public eye. Lead singer Chris Cornell launched a solo career, and the rest of the members quietly went their separate ways, making the band an artifact of the legendary Seattle grunge era.
It wasn’t until 2010 that reunion talks became serious, and now, two years later, the world has a new Soundgarden album, “King Animal.” Soundgarden fans’ biggest fear was that the album would sound like a half-baked, inconsequential cash-grab. Luckily, those fears can be discarded. “King Animal” is a spirited, fully realized record that is much better than anyone could have reasonably expected.
“King Animal” begins with “Been Away Too Long,” which is a perfect opening track. Not only does it reintroduce the listener to the sorely missed guitar of Kim Thayil, but the chorus, in which Cornell sings triumphantly “I’ve been away for too long,” should definitely elicit a “hell yeah” or two. While his voice certainly isn’t what it used to be, Cornell’s signature growl is on full display. Tracks like the forceful “Crooked Steps” and the eerie closer “Rowing” demonstrate why he belongs on the Mount Rushmore of rock singers.
While it is a pleasant surprise that Cornell’s voice is at even 75 percent capacity after all these years, the real MVP of “King Animal” is Thayil. The art of the guitar riff is going the way of the dodo, but Thayil wields his instrument like a finely honed weapon — with elegant viciousness. Take album highlight “Bones of Birds,” which sounds like a long-lost “Superunknown” track. Thayil uses all the tools in his arsenal, combining elements of “Black Hole Sun” and “Head Down” into something totally new and completely awesome.
The album tends to stumble when Thayil takes a back seat, but luckily this only happens on a few tracks where the absence of his monstrous riffs proves distracting. “Halfway There,” an acoustic-based track about the difficulties of achieving a good life in this world, is too light and delicate to have an impact, even with its weighty subject matter. In addition, Thayil’s absence also draws unwanted attention to Cornell’s less-than-stellar lyrics. For example, on the track “Halfway There,” Cornell proudly sings “Sometimes when you shoot an arrow/ It can fly across the sky so proud.”
Although Cornell is not at his lyrical best with “King Animal,” his voice, combined with Thayil’s guitar, renders the lyrics irrelevant. “Rowing” has Cornell spitting nonsensical lines like “Rowing is bleeding, bleeding is breathing/ Breathing is feeling, running and freezing,” but he sells the line with his flawless wail, backed up by what sounds like a musical interpretation of a Viking with a bonesaw.
“King Animal” can credibly stand among Soundgarden’s strong catalog of albums. While it isn’t a stone-cold classic like “Superunknown,” “King Animal” is a genuinely gratifying listen and a worthy entry in the — hopefully — ongoing Soundgarden saga.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Nov. 13 print edition. Joshua Johnson is music editor. Email him at [email protected]