My introduction to Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” was via the song’s video, which I first saw during the early summer of 1994:
This video was both awesome and, at the time, quite possibly the most fucked-up thing I had ever seen. As a result, the song creeped me out a bit whenever I heard it, because I always associated it with all of the bizarre, psychedelic stuff going on in the video. To this day, if I watch the video, my hair invariably stands on end at points, especially when the black hole sun starts making things turn even more chaotic and weird than they were during the first couple of minutes…
Eventually, I bought Superunknown – which was released 20 years ago this month, and is being re-released as a Super Deluxe edition on April 19th (Record Store Day) – and I got to know the song and its companions a whole lot better.
This was back when the Walkman and its ilk were beginning to approach their death throes, but to a college student with little in the way of pocket money, the Walkman was great. I bought blank cassettes, dubbed my favorite music onto them, and listened to them through headphones at high volume as I fulfilled my work-study obligations. I worked a job that required virtually zero personal interaction, which made it a perfect opportunity to shut off the world and listen to rock and metal without bothering anyone. I became good friends with the likes of Machine Head, Testament, Alice In Chains, Metallica, and Soundgarden during those (many, many) sessions.
As I made my way through my college years, I developed some pretty specific memories of “Black Hole Sun.” The details of what I was doing while listening are both fuzzy and irrelevant by this time; what I remember vividly is the small epiphanies I would have while listening to Superunknown (which is an album that, if you’re in the right mood, will blow your mind in many very pleasant ways the first several times you listen to it).
“Black Hole Sun” has several interesting elements, some of which are:
- It’s a slow, steady, heavy rock song, but is well-polished and multi-layered, both vocally and instrumentally.
- The lead guitar melody has a somewhat haunting, yet beautiful and ethereal quality that contrasts nicely with the heavy parts of the song.
- The “black hole sun!” screams in the last chorus are pretty awesome.
- The hard alternate-panned “black hole sun!” vocals during the “won’t you come?” part at the end of the song are pretty remarkable to listen to on headphones… especially the first time you hear them.
- The John Lennon-inspired vocal harmonies in the choruses sound great.
And there are others – those are just off the top of my head. I didn’t discover each of them on the first listen. When you hear the song come at you from directly in front – as with a music video on TV – you don’t necessarily hear everything. But on headphones, the stereo space revealed nuggets such as the ones I listed above, and from a musical perspective, it was heaven.
Superunknown has several gems. I’m not usually partial to the big hits by an artist – and “Black Hole Sun” was probably Soundgarden’s biggest – but in this case, the song stands on its merits. But there are other great songs on the album. “Like Suicide,” for instance, is not only a great song, but has one of my favorite Soundgarden treats: Chris Cornell singing/screaming at the beginning of Kim Thayil’s guitar solo… and the solo itself is, in my opinion, one of the most emotionally powerful solos I’ve ever heard. He does a smiliar thing at the beginning of the solo in the album’s opener, “Let Me Drown,” which I also love. Other favorites abound… “Head Down” has a great intro; “Fell On Black Days” is just a great song; “Spoonman” needs no explanation; “Fresh Tendrils” (the “shame! shame! throw yourself away” chorus-y part is incredible); and “4th of July” with its down-tuned sludginess that I struggled to comprehend at the time.
From front to back, it’s one of the strongest albums I own. In my humble opinion, there isn’t another Soundgarden album that’s as dynamic and well-written as Superunknown, and 20 years later, it’s still an album that I can enjoy from start to finish.
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