Album review: Soundgarden Superunknown 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe

Soundgarden’s seminal 1994 album Superunknown is the latest to follow this century’s trend of re-releasing records on their twentieth anniversary, complete with bonus B-sides and outtakes to make it a quasi-new product. Superunknown is one of the more ambitious such re-releases to date, containing a whopping fifty-five tracks including demos, live concert renditions, and rehearsal versions, both of the original fifteen songs and of some additional songs from the era. In review, the essential questions are how well this album has held up in the twenty years since grunge has come and gone and now come back in vintage form, and whether the forty extra tracks make the re-issue worth its $29.99 price tag.

The bonus tracks start off predictably enough with She Likes Surprises, the song from the Superunknown sessions which was included on some international versions but was clipped from the U.S. version. From there we get alternate takes of several of the songs on the album including Spoonman and The Day I Tried To Live, which offer intriguing insight into what might have been, but ultimately reveal that the official versions chosen for the original album were the superior takes.

The tracklist then offers a number of live versions of songs from different Soundgarden songs of that era, including Birth Ritual and Jesus Christ Pose, before serving up some obscurities like Exit Stonehenge and Kyle Petty Son Of Richard. But the real fun arguably begins with Black Days III, a murky song which serves as counterpoint to the comparative sheen of the original hit single Fell On Black days.

The final twenty tracks consist of original demo versions and live rehearsal versions of most of the original fifteen Superunknown songs. Legend has it that Soundgarden resented producer Michael Beinhorn’s perfectionism during the Superunknown sessions so much that they vowed never to work with him again. But perhaps unwittingly, the dirty rawness of these demos reveals just how much the songs gained by being recorded and re-recorded until taking on the polish of diamonds while still retaining their original grunge edge. In hindsight, Superunknown just might be the grunge album from the nineties with the most staying power all these years later. Considering the manner in which Soundgarden toiled in the shadow of Nirvana and Pearl Jam for most of its heyday, that’s a remarkable feat.

For those who love finished products and don’t much care how they got to that state, the extensive peek behind the scenes provided by the Superunknown 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe may not be worth much, with only a few intriguing unreleased B-sides worth cherry picking in iTunes. But for those Soundgarden fans who have loved this record for twenty years and love the idea of figuring out how it all came together, these forty extra tracks are golden.

The only nitpick I can offer is that some of the extra tracks are better described than others. For instance the live tunes are all listed with the location and date of the concerts they came from, but there three different studio versions of Black Hole Sun on here without either of the alternate versions being explained. What are they? Where did they come from? Why weren’t they chosen for the record in the first place? Then again, the kind of super-fans likely to buy this fifty-five track opus probably already know the story behind these alternate versions anyway.