The fall of 1991 turned out to be one of the most fertile and explosive phases of the all-too-brief grunge movement, as Pearl Jam’s debut Ten (August 20), Nirvana’s second record Nevermind (September 24), and Soundgarden’s third album Badmotorfinger (October 22) were released in rapid succession. Nevermind resonated with Generation X and jumped out to an early sales lead, but Ten overtook it by mid-’93 and hasn’t looked back, achieving a diamond certification from the RIAA in 1996 en route to going 13x multi-platinum in 2009. Nevermind is no slouch, however; it also achieved a diamond certification in 1999 and has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 million copies worldwide. But what about Badmotorfinger, you ask? Well, it got left in the dust.
Seattle may not have much dust to speak of — it is notoriously soggy, after all — especially compared to the metropolis-idiotically-built-on-a-desert city of Los Angeles, but Badmotorfinger enjoyed just a fraction of the success of Ten and Nevermind. And given the vastly different sound of each of these three records, it’s not hard to explain why. Kurt Cobain, love him or hate him, had tremendous pop sensibilities, and his songwriting on Nevermind reflects that. (The glossy mixes certainly didn’t hurt the album’s appeal, either.) Ten is an altogether different animal. It’s a more traditional rock & roll record, with the monster riffs of Led Zeppelin and the yearning intimacy of Bruce Springsteen. As for Badmotorfinger, it’s more metal, and because of that, Soundgarden had a much harder time finding a wide audience until they released their more classic follow-up Superunknown in 1994.
But it’s important to not shortchange Badmotorfinger, as it’s quite a good album in its own right, even if it lacks the pop songcraft Chris Cornell would display a greater mastery of on Superunknown. There isn’t really any single material here (although “Rusty Cage” and “Outshined” charted decently on American rock radio), and I can’t recall ever hearing any of these songs on alternative rock radio, even though “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Rusty Cage” and “Outshined” certainly rank well with Soundgarden’s other classics. My favorite Soundgarden song is track 8, “Room a Thousand Years Wide.” It’s something of a precursor to “My Wave” from Superunknown, which is one of my favorite songs to play on the guitar.
It’s interesting how that sort of thing works. Just about every time I pick up my guitar I end up playing “My Wave,” but I rarely play “Room a Thousand Years Wide.” Somehow it isn’t as interesting to play, even though I listen to it a lot more than “My Wave.” (Both songs are in non-standard tunings — “Room a Thousand Years Wide” is in Drop D and “My Wave” is in EEBBBB, which I’ve never seen used on anything else — but can be approximated easily enough in standard E tuning.) Badmotorfinger is, to a grunge enthusiast like myself, deliciously sludgy. It’s a colorless, slow-moving rumble you can’t quite hear anywhere else. Perhaps most importantly, it’s an organic sound, developed after a proper gestation period in relative isolation in the Pacific Northwest.
Everything on the record sounds thick, muscular and tightly wound, thanks to Kim Thayil’s down-tuned guitars and Chris Cornell’s commanding vocals. If Badmotorfinger falters at all, it’s that it’s perhaps too durable of a cocoon, as Soundgarden wouldn’t fully blossom until Superunknown. Nevertheless, it remains a grunge essential.