Saturday, July 2, 2011

4th of July - Soundgarden (1994)

Grunge is a very hard to define sub-genre- simply because it encompassed a wide range of styles. Nirvana had a clear punk/hardcore influence, Pearl Jam a strong classic rock influence- almost complete opposites. Soundgarden, one of the other major names in the Grunge scene, had a sound that was strongly influenced by heavy metal - particularly the doom/sludge sub-genres and a healthy dose of psychedelic rock. So, just considering three of the biggest Grunge bands, we have three wildly varying styles of music under one banner.

The key to Grunge, I think, is found in the attitude and the lyrical content rather than in the  sound and style of the music itself. Grunge, I think, distinguishes itself by having the point of view of disillusioned youth. Topics such as depression, broken families, frustration with authority, and youthful angst are the hallmark and the unifying factor. Soundgarden clearly demonstrates this idea with the song "4th of July" from their 1994 album "Superunknown."
The song is supposedly a description of an LSD trip, keeping in theme with Soundgarden's preference for sullen, depressing subject matter. The lyrics can also be interpreted as a depiction of the end of the world- or even both at the same time. The lyrics mention references to lights in the sky in indefinite terms- implying that the person seeing them is confused about what he is seeing- these lights could be a drug induced hallucination or explosions in the sky. My feeling is that the lyrics are intentionally obscure- and are meant to describe a vision of the world ending- either as a prophecy of sorts, or a cautionary tale.

Perhaps the message here is a statement about the self destructive nature of drug use by likening an LSD trip to the end of the world. Maybe singer/songwriter Chris Cornell was just presenting images that reflected whatever bad mood he was in when he wrote the song. Either way, the song is open to interpretation. /'Cause I heard it in the wind/And I saw it in the sky/And I thought it was the end/And I thought it was the 4th of July/.

In my article on Peal Jam's first album, I remarked how wide a variety of musical styles were covered by the label "grunge" in the early to mid 90s. You had Nirvana who were closer to punk rock, Pearl Jam, who were much closer to classic hard rock, and Soundgarden- who are more of a heavy metal band. 4th of July, in particular could easily be labeled as a doom or sludge metal song.

The song's style and sound are very reminiscent of early Black Sabbath. The guitars are tuned down a whole step to C tuning to achieve the  very heavy, dark sound clearly heard throughout the song. The main riff is fairly simple and is played at a slow, plodding pace that gives the song the feeling and mood of a funeral march. This very closely matches the style adopted, and to some extent, invented by Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi twenty five years earlier. Iommi typically tuned his guitar down to various D, C#, and Eb tunings- initially to reduce tension on the strings to compensate for an injury to his fret hand, but later just because the sound was dark and gritty. Early Black Sabbath songs typically dealt with similar topics- drug use, end of the world, mortality, depression, etc... and many songs adopted a similar slow, plodding tempo. A good example of this is the beginning of Black Sabbath's song "Under the Sun" from the "Volume 4" album in 1972.

So what does a band that is stylistically close to early heavy metal have in common with Nirvana and Pearl Jam? Part of the answer is a matter of circumstance- Soundgarden, like the other major grunge bands, were born in the Seattle underground scene in the late 80s, so have similar roots. More importantly- the depression and disillusionment themes in their songs have a much more prominent role than they did for early Sabbath- who, while containing similar ideas, focused more on scary, ominous themes. 4th of July probably better represents what differentiates Soundgarden from the other grunge bands than what makes them similar, but it is there. The tone is depressing, born of the attitude of the disaffected youth of the 90s. The focus in the song is on the feelings of non-importance- the end is coming and the song speaks of it in almost a detached manner- resigned to fate you have no power to stop. This is at the heart of grunge- that feeling of powerlessness experienced by many young people as they come of age that often manifests itself as indifference- why care if you can't change anything? This attitude is clearly stated in what many consider to be the national anthem of the grunge movement- Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with the line /Oh well/Whatever/Nevermind/.

Soundgarden's 4th of July shows this sentiment with a few lines from the second verse- /And everywhere no one cares/The fire is spreading/And no one wants to speak about it/ - indifference, desperate situations out of anyone's control, with resignation and avoidance. That is the attitude that defines what grunge is (or was).

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