Historical overviews of the Seattle grunge scene often suggest Soundgarden achieved international recognition simply because their pivotal third album, Badmotorfinger, was released within a month of Nirvana’s stellar Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s equally seismic Ten.
Nobody’s arguing against the Seattle quartet having a head start when their hometown became rock music’s mecca during 1991, but, with hindsight, it’s obvious Chris Cornell and company were on course for mainstream success regardless of prevailing trends. After they established a loyal fanbase with their much-acclaimed debut album, Ultramega OK, and made significant strides with their A&M follow-up, Louder Than Love, everything pointed towards Soundgarden gaining international recognition sooner rather than later.
Aside from the fact their stock was on the rise, confidence in the camp was further boosted prior to Badmotorfinger when new bassist Ben Shepherd permanently replaced the group’s original incumbent, Hiro Yamamoto, after his temporary stand in – Nirvana acolyte Jason Everman – failed to work out.
A longtime Soundgarden fan, Shepherd was an extremely adept musician, but the fact he also had a passion for songwriting made a particularly strong impact on his new bandmates.
“There was a definite sense of excitement because we had a new bass player,” guitarist Kim Thayil recalled in a 2015 Rolling Stone interview. “Ben loved Joy Division, Wire, Black Flag, The Meat Puppets… so these were a part of who he is in his songwriting. So when we were jamming together, [it was] like a kick in the ass and a refresher. The dark psychedelia which was replaced by our slight visceral heaviness on Louder Than Love came back and so did the quirkiness.”
Shepherd’s arrival galvanized the whole band into contributing new songs for what would become Badmotorfinger. Initial demos suggested they were on to something special and when they reconvened with Louder Than Love’s producer, Terry Date, Soundgarden were primed to realize a diverse and heavy-hitting album that wasn’t just ambitious, it was truly fearless.
Vacillating between fast, hypnotic, krautrock-esque grooves and Black Sabbath-style bombast, Badmotorfinger’s memorable opening track, “Rusty Cage,” set the bar high, though the band also melded elements of alt-rock, punk, and metal to devastating effect on “Room A Thousand Years Wide” and “Jesus Christ Pose,” wherein Cornell expounded on superstars’ deity-like persecution complexes (“Thorns and shroud, it’s like the coming of the Lord”) over a lacerating groove punctuated by Thayil’s swooping, kamikaze guitar.
Elsewhere, the group’s confidence continued to soar as they canoodled with sky-kissing psychedelia on “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” and let their natural quirkiness run free on the Beefheart-ian “Mind Riot.” They weren’t averse to a little humor, either, with Cornell dropping a few brilliantly self-deprecating lines (“I’m looking California/And feeling Minnesota”) into the album’s most anthemic track, “Outshined,” which somehow came off feeling lithe and funky despite being anchored by one of Thayil’s most monolithic riffs.
For Soundgarden, Badmotorfinger was a major creative coup, but however great its contents were, its reputation was undeniably enhanced by grunge breaking internationally. With Seattle suddenly the epicenter of cool, Badmotorfinger’s trio of killer singles, “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage,” racked up considerable airtime on alt-rock radio stations, while the videos for “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage” (the latter song later famously covered by Johnny Cash on American II: Unchained) also bagged heavy rotation on MTV, and “Jesus Christ Pose” climbed to No.30 on the UK’s Top 40 singles chart.
First released by A&M on October 8, 1991, Badmotorfinger was forced to compete with hot rival titles Ten and Nevermind, but it held its own admirably, providing Chris Cornell and company with transatlantic Top 40 breakthroughs and a Grammy nomination (for Best Metal Performance) at the 1992 awards. On the charts, the record’s double-platinum performance ensured Soundgarden’s career remained on an upward curve, and its success helped steady their nerves for a sustained crack at the title with 1994’s seminal Superunknown.