God, grunge, and the “via negativa”

Actually, I’m not fond of the term “grunge”, as it is, utlmately, a convenient and lazy term that is not explanatory or descriptive. But it does work, I suppose, for the header to this post. That said, I do like much of the music of Soundgarden and the band’s talented frontman, Chris Cornell. And so I recently penned a post, “A sprawling, highly subjective review of Soundgarden’s ‘King Animal'”, over at Progarchy.com, in which I argue that the major theme in Soundgardens new album—the band’s first since 1996—is one of spiritual struggle and ascension, and bears a number of striking similarities to T. S. Eliot’s poem on the same topic, “Ash Wednesday”. I write:

With the third song, “Crooked Steps”, the album really hits its stride, with lead guitarist Kim Thayil, laying down a deceptively simple, crunchy, and distinctive riff and then issuing forth a variety of his patented air-hornish, bagpipe-like runs. Cornell’s lyrics are delivered from a first person perspective, but the exact voice is hard to locate. At times, it sounds like the Hound of Heaven: “I’m a ghost and a healer/I’m the shape of the hole inside your heart.” The echoes of Eliot come to fore again, in my hearing. “Crooked steps will taken me higher” wails Cornell, “I don’t care if you want to cry. I’m a soldier for hire/killing all you admire/and you live in denial”. And here is Eliot: “Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair/Climbing the third stair. … Although I do not hope to turn again/Although I do not hope/Although I do not hope to turn”.

The next three songs—”A Thousand Days Before”, “Blood on the Valley Floor”, and “Bones of Birds”—are as good as anything Soundgarden has ever recorded; together, they shape the complex and often conflicted emotional heart of “King Animal”. “A Thousand Days Before” finds Cornell bringing forth his apocalyptic side, with not only the millennial reference but also the image of the “sun and moon at war”. But just as “Blow Up the Outside World” from the underrated Down On the Upside (1996) was not about physically destroying the outside world but being free of the oppression of the outside world’s darkness, this song is about the inner conflicts that shape one’s spiritual landscape: “Born with a thousand little holes/And a tear to fill up every one/A thousand to ignore”. The grinding, dirge-like pulse of “Blood on the Valley Floor” brings to mind Superunknown‘s harrowing “Limo Wreck”—one of my favorite Soundgarden songs—both musically and lyrically. The song presents a desperate scene of genocide and senseless violence: “And the blood dries/while we spill/some more”. Specifics are, of course, not to be found. Is it a physical event, an inner violence, or a metaphor for a society or culture as a whole? My continuing impression is of hell itself, with the damned tumbling down to where “the smoke lies on the valley floor”.

When hope enters, in “Bones of Birds”, it is fragile and even frightening, with the shadow of mortality close at hand: “Time is my friend/til it ain’t/and runs out/and that is all that I have/til it’s gone”. Light is located in love and family, in the struggle to “build a home”. The inner struggle to persevere is captured brilliantly in the tug and pull melody, which drives ahead, then subsides, steadies, then pushes forward again. Is survival possible? The concluding answer is hesitant: “Probably … maybe”.

“Taree”, with lyrics by Cornell and music by Shepherd, was apparently inspired by boyhood memories of a magical place in the forests outside Seattle. Free of the city, the Unknown is palpable: “Though I can’t put my hands on you/I can feel you now”. There is a decidedly mystical quality to the lyrics, which mesh perfectly with Cornell’s previous references to returning home and the unnamed “ghost”: “I only know I’ve made it home/When I drown/In your ghost light.” The connection to the hit song, “Let Me Drown”, from Superunknown, seems fairly obvious…

There is much more, if it is of interest. Cornell, as I note in the review, was raised in a (quite disfunctional) Catholic home, and is apparently now a practicing Eastern Orthodox (his wife certainly is, by all accounts), although not much is known about his exact beliefs. Regardless, his lyrics are far more honest and interesting than most of what passes for “spiritually” aware contemporary music these days.

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About Carl E. Olson 1234 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.