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They've Been Gone for Too Long: Full Audio and Analysis of All 13 Tracks on Soundgarden's King Animal
The Evolving Animal
King Animal is an Evolution, Not a Reinvention
Soundgarden always managed to take risks while still staying true to the basic mood that informed their sound. King Animal works within that framework and because of that, this album doesn't seem like a departure. King Animal doesn't sound out of date, but it doesn't sound like anything Soundgarden's ever done before, either. There's enough sinewy solos and quirky rhythms to make most of the tracks interesting to listen to, even though it does lag a little in the middle. Overall, King Animal is not the best album in the Soundgarden catalog but it is a good effort for a band whose members have been busy with other projects for nearly a decade and haven't produced music together for years. The main thing that makes this album interesting is the lyrical content. After over a decade of inactivity, Soundgarden has plenty to say to each other and to followers of the band.
With the exception of Non-State Actor and Attrition, Cornell wrote all the lyrics for Soundgarden's comeback album. In my view, part of Cornell's goal in this album was to try to reconnect with longtime listeners and put forth an explanation about the band's extended period of inactivity. Also Cornell seems to be making an attempt to explain some of the controversial career choices that he has made over the years to longtime fans. King Animal is, in my view, Cornell's finest moment as a lyricist.
Reuniting With Old Friends
If you are familiar with the history of this band and the personalities of the different band members, listening to this album is kind of like listening in on a (slightly awkward) conversation among old friends. King Animal is probably the only album in the Soundgarden catalog that has this conversational quality. The other thing that is interesting about this album is that Soundgarden seems to be using the lyrical content to reach out to their fans (both old and new) in ways that they never have before.
This article is just one person's track-by-track interpretation of this album. Any speculation on my part backed up with as much factual information as possible. If you like rock music, I'd encourage you to listen while reading along and form your own opinions as you go. My intent is not to dictate the meaning of the songs. If you disagree with my interpretation, that's a good thing. Hopefully my own point of view on the songs will inspire others to think about the song lyrics in their own way. If you'd like to share, feel free post comments in the comment section at the bottom of the page.
Track 1: Been Away Too Long
Cornell and Seattle
You can't go home, no I swear you never can
After listening to this song I had to wonder whether or not Chris Cornell had moved back to Seattle. Information about Chris Cornell's current city of residence was hard to find, but tweets from his mother-in-law Toni Karayiannis seem to indicate that the Cornell family now lives in Seattle.
If Cornell did in fact move back to the city where he was born and raised, it would make sense that he has some mixed emotions about relocating. Back in the early 2000s, Cornell spent some time in France getting married, recovering from alcoholism, modeling and opening an upscale restaurant. The lavish lifestyle he's used to now is worlds away from the experiences he had when he was working at a fish market in Seattle, getting drunk and ironing out rock songs with his band in the basement. Though he may have experienced hardship during those early years, odds are that he now misses those times and the friends that he had during that period. There is no way for Cornell to go back to those times, though, which is why he kicks off the song with the line "you can't go home, no I swear you never can."
You can walk a million miles and get nowhere
Uncertainty and imagery related to aimless wandering reoccur throughout the album. This could be due to the fact that Cornell has tried many different musical directions throughout his career but has so far been unable to achieve his ultimate goal. During interviews, Cornell often references the fact that he used to listen to Beatles records over and over again growing up. His solo efforts to become a star on par with his childhood rock heroes may have alienated some of Cornell's old hipster friends in the local Seattle music scene-- and probably the other members of Soundgarden. The real reasons and causes behind why Soundgarden broke up in 1997 and did not reform until 2010 will probably never be revealed to the public, and whenever members of the band are asked about it they give cliched, unspecific non-responses like "we went in different musical directions." Most likely the tension between Thayil's desire to maintain credibility and Cornell's desire for mainstream acceptance and stardom was the root reason why the band split up.
Reconnecting With the Fans
I only ever really wanted a break
Like many songwriters, Cornell often purposely encodes double meanings inside of his song lyrics. The idea of being away for too long may also refer to the fact that Soundgarden lost touch with their fans over the years when the group was disbanded. This song -- and the rest of the album, in general -- is largely an attempt to reestablish relationships. With King Animal, Cornell is reaching out to his bandmates and Soundgarden fans again. It's a bold move, and if the upbeat punk-influenced riff on this song is any indication the entire band is motivated to try to wake the beast up and and put it back to work.
Alcohol as Inspiration
Tankards and flagons and snifters and flutes on my way home
"Tankards and flagons and snifters and flutes on my way home" is an odd lyric contained toward the end of the song. It's easy to see how moving back to his old stomping grounds might tempt Cornell to revert back to his old drinking habits, even though the band has cut booze out of their practice and rehearsal sessions this time around. For whatever reason (maybe he doesn't want his kids to misunderstand) Cornell has said in interviews that he's never used alcohol when creating songs, but somehow I doubt that's true given this lyric. Alcohol may help Cornell get in the mood to write Soundgarden lyrics, which generally tend to be more depressing compared to Audioslave lyrics and lyrics contained in songs from his solo albums. For whatever reason Cornell may not want to admit the influence of alcohol in his songwriting process during interviews.
No Intelligent Life
and nobody knows where intelligent life is
I personally like the line "nobody knows where intelligent life is" because to me, it's a reflection about how there is currently a lack of intelligence in modern rock music. Though he is obviously a thoughtful person, Cornell might feel like it's still very uncool and pretentious to present himself as anything more than a "dumb rock and roll guy." Cornell often appears overly modest and humble during interviews and on twitter. This line is probably also an expression of a concern that original Soundgarden fans have moved on and that the complex issues and feelings described over the course of the album might go unnoticed and unappreciated.
Track 2: Non-state Actor
Cornell and Thayil
A motherless country, of thee I sing
You are the tank and rockets, I am the bomb
This is the only song that attributes writing credits to Thayil. Interestingly, Cornell is also credited with providing lyrical input on the song, and Shepard is credited for writing the music. That makes this track a collaborative effort, though this clearly about Thayil and Cornell. The lyric "you are the tank and rockets, I am the bomb" is most likely a reference to the Jimmy Page / Robert Plant style musical partnership that Cornell and Thayil have.
A "teamup" style song was necessary on this album, given the artistic disconnect between Cornell and Thayil. Cornell probably lost respect in Seattle because he relocated to France, and it's hard to imagine Thayil approving of that-- or of Cornell's blatant pursuit of stardom and questionable career choices over the years. Thayil offers an olive branch, though, and backs Cornell up by portraying him as a "non-state actor" in this song-- a guy who generally does whatever the hell he wants when he wants. Here Thayil are essentially saying "let's forget all about that stuff you did with Timbaland so that we can go out and kick some ass."
Where's the Good Rock Music?
So weak in the lands, strong in the will (need)
I bring dirty water, and make it clean (young)
"You are the cure, I am the drug
In interviews, band members have said that they were surprised to see many young faces in the audience during the reunion tour of 2010. This may have led Cornell and company to believe that there is still a demand for good, new rock music. If youthful new fans agree to revitalize the band and make it cool again, Soundgarden is ready to "be the drug" and deliver more doses of their brand of psychedelic hard rock music.
Thayil Wants to Teach the Kids a Thing or Two About How to Rock
I teach you a lesson, sword for a pen
Reading, turn the pages. History of man (look)
You are tabla rasa, I am the book
A sword might symbolize a guitar. Pens are required for note taking. Thayil most likely had the most input on these particular lines. Tabla rasa means blank slate. Thayil intends to pass down his tome of rock and roll knowledge to the next generation.
Track 3: By Crooked Steps
I'm addicted to feeling
Stealing love isn't stealing
Can't you see that I understand your mind?
As with many of Cornell's lyrics, this one works on multiple levels. One way to understand it is to take it literally, as a message from Cornell to the longtime Soundgarden fans. The lyric might be an admission that Cornell has wrongly been trying to "steal love" by appealing to the mainstream. Also, Cornell may be attempting to "steal love" back from the fans who used to like Soundgarden but stopped following the band after being disappointed with Cornell's solo albums and Audioslave. Cornell can "understand the mind" of longtime fans and gets why many were disappointed. Cornell may also be trying to regain credibility with his bandmates and friends from the Seattle music scene and this song may very well be directed toward them as well. Cornell is at his best when he's got something to prove.
Back to the Blues
Not looking for a brighter side
Probably thinking that it would be impossible to accomplish Paul McCartney levels of stardom as a gloomy grunge personality, Cornell has been trying to lighten things up ever since the breakup of Soundgarden. Through his solo work and with Audioslave, Cornell tried to get away from the existential, brooding, complicated style of Seattle rock that he helped pioneer. With this lyric, Cornell seems to be indicating that he's through trying to be upbeat (upbeat Audioslave songs like Jewel of the Summertime were never really that convincing) and is willing to go back to what comes naturally for him-- singing the blues.
Addressing the Fans
I'm a soldier for hire
Killing all you admire
And you live in denial but that will change
Continuing with his "non-state actor" attitude, Cornell again asserts that he does exactly what he wants, and doesn't give a damn. He knows that he may have disappointed fans in the process of experimenting with different styles over the last several years, and that some of his experiments may have failed-- but your perceptions of him will change. Cornell is extremely confident that he knows what the fans want and that Soundgarden can give it to them. In an interview with consequenceofsound.com Cornell was quoted as saying that he "never considered" whether or not Soundgarden fans would like the new album. This speaks volumes about the degree to which Soundgarden feels a connection to their fan base.
Drunken, Crooked Steps
My crooked steps, right behind you
Crooked steps is suggestive of an alcoholic stagger. Cornell may be using alcohol again as a muse to inspire creativity, in the hopes of recapturing some of the crooked energy that made Soundgarden great in the first place. Or, maybe he's using other means now to get into that same head space. This lyric could also be a statement that Cornell intends to get away from writing simpler songs and to go back to incorporating progressive song structures, alternative tuning and varying time signatures. Thayil has commented in interviews that Audioslave was "sort of like a linear Soundgarden."
What Is Your Favorite Soundgarden Album?
Track 4: A Thousand Days Before
A Reflection on the Past
Life a thousand days ago, hours sinking in a hole
Tried to melt into the walls
Now a thousand days have gone again
Like the sun and moon at war
Cornell is getting older and many of his lyrics now reflect on the passage of time. Cornell has expressed some regret over the fact that the band didn't really enjoy themselves during the peak of their popularity.
Expressions of Alienation
Here in the cold, where no one stands beside me
I'll be on my own side, you'll know where to find me
Imagine coming back to your home town after moving away for nearly a decade, and reforming your old band. In a way, though, the experience is probably oddly refreshing. Starting over again may in many ways remind Cornell of the time when he was struggling in his early twenties and trying to make his band a success.
Drawing Strength From Depression
Born with a thousand little holes, and a tear to fill up every one
A thousand to ignore
I'll be on my own side
The fake grunge bands that became popular in the late 90s were just jumping on the "self-loathing frontman" trend, but when Soundgarden was first becoming popular in the early 90s, expressing authentic emotions within the framework of a rock band was still a novel concept.
Cornell in particular has a unique ability to pull off rock and roll swagger while simultaneously expressing self-contempt and other complex emotions. His signature brand of self-loathing is completely authentic, and he often buries his true feelings behind imagery and metaphors. Soundgarden can be appreciated on the surface as a hard rock band, which is why they achieved mainstream success. However, repeated listening will reveal multiple layers both in the music and in the lyrics.
Cornell's manic/depressive personality blends well within the framework of a heavy band like Soundgarden. These lines describe some of Cornell's darker personality traits, but they also boast about his ability to suppress negative feelings and continue on in spite of everything. It's this type of "to hell with it all" mental toughness that allows him to do his own thing regardless of what anyone thinks-- but only because he hates himself more than anyone else possibly could. This characteristic is the source of Cornell's power and allows him to do things like scream at crowds of people, but it also leads him astray from time to time. This song has a sort of manic energy and reminds me of someone burning all of their possessions in the front yard and hitting the road with nothing but a backpack. Out of all the songs on this particular album, this one is probably the most personal and it is a good description of what makes Cornell tick. Follow My Way (a song from Cornell's excellent first solo effort) is another interesting look at Cornell's paradoxical personality.
Track 5: Blood on the Valley Floor
Something to Prove
Mountains all around, altogether we stumble
11 million clowns, every one with a razor out
Music credits were given to Thayil on this track, and his influence is evident in the heavy, twisting riffs that repeat throughout. This lyric probably is a reference to going up against the critics. A band doesn't reform after a decade without having to prove themselves all over again. Reuniting after so many years is a risky move, but Soundgarden seems to welcome the challenge of trudging back up the mountaintop.
Veni, Vidi, Vici
Once we were at the end, the end of a long road
Leading to the stars, of the ever invading crowds
And the blood dries while we spill
After expressing some depressing thoughts in previous songs, Cornell shows a little bit of swagger here. His band rose to the top before, until they were crowded out by the imitators-- "nu metal" bands that sought to imitate the grunge attitude in order to get a better chance of getting picked up by a major label. The derivative acts that followed Soundgarden lacked sincerity, musical skill and often had no true appreciation for (or understanding of) the great punk and rock bands of the 60s and 70s.
Track 6: Bones of Birds
Ruminations on Death
Time is my friend, till it ain't and runs out
and that is all I have, till it's gone
This isn't so much a thought about getting older as it is a reflection on the impermanence of life. Cornell has lost many close friends over the years: Cobain, Staley, Wood, etc. The initial Seattle music scene was a close knit group of friends and musicians who often attended each other's shows. It's understandable, then, that Cornell would have cause to wonder about how long he will last.
The Worries of a Father
Try to build a home, bones of birds
Singing in the cold and fall to Earth
Too weak to survive
Cornell has been a father since June of 2000, and often writes songs about his children. An Audioslave song called the Shape of Things to Come deals with Cornell's worries about the future of society as it relates to the lives of his children.
During an interview, Cornell revealed that Bones of Birds is about the loss of innocence. Interestingly, Cornell wrote a song called Killing birds for his most recent solo album "Carry On." The lyrics on Killing Birds describe Cornell physically killing a bird with his hands. Soundgarden's Burden In My Hand may also be a song that has something to do with the loss of innocence and it also involves a description of murder. Much of Cornell's work seems to be intentionally complicated, as if he really has more than a few dark secrets to hide. This could be a songwriting technique Cornell uses to draw listeners in or some metaphor for some type of inner turmoil that he was feeling at the time. It is possible, though, that the lyrics could be based on some real experience. Whatever the case may be, there's no doubt that some of Cornell's lyrics are truly disturbing.
Try to look out through a hole in a bag
Circle above, looking down bird of prey
If the song is about the loss of innocence, the bird of prey could represent the negative forces in society that may have an adverse impact on his children.
Track 7: Taree
Coming Back Home
Though I can't put my hands on you, I can feel you now
In the ether I sail to you, floating on the fumes
In the bones and the blood flowing, needle on the ground
I only know I've made it home when I drown in your ghost light
The music for this song was produced by Sheperd shortly before the band broke up. The title is named after a "fake Hollywood marquee" he saw in Seattle. Here Cornell returns again to the use of ghostly imagery to convey the disconnect that he's feeling in his own hometown.
A Certain Gloom That Can't Be Expressed In Words
Though I can't put a name on you, I will cry it out
In my heart I will hold what my bloody hands have dropped
Soundgarden, for whatever reason, is capable of expressing certain moods that can't easily be expressed in words. Seeing the broken down marquee inspired a particular mood in Shepard that was readily understood by Cornell. When Shepard gave Cornell the music for the track and told him about the scene that inspired the music, Cornell was able to easily complete the song. Taree is one of the most haunting tracks on the album and is an expression of Soundgarden's unique band chemistry and ability to capture an eerie mood.
Track 8: Attrition
A Political Statement
Headed down to Nero's tomb, raising flags and burning rights
According to a promotional interview, Shepard wrote this song before the band broke up to express rage at the Bush administration. Cornell also dabbled in political protest songs with Audioslave. Prior to 1997, though, Soundgarden had been nearly completely apolitical. So, why include a song about George W. Bush on the album? A Bush protest song sounds like old news in 2012. Of course, the lyrics are obtuse enough that you don't necessarily know right away that it has anything to do with politics. Cornell may have allowed this song to be included on the record to facilitate the spirit of collaboration. It's a solid song, but might have been improved if the band increased the tempo.
Possible Slight Against Cornell
On the cliff above stormy waves, can't decide to climb or drown
Up is folly, down disgrace
It would make sense that any conflicts inside the band might be silent ones and that it might be easier for them to express their frustrations with each other via song lyrics. It's hard to imagine the members of Soundgarden having a screaming match-- or even an open discussion about their creative differences. It's easy to imagine that their 1997 breakup occurred after a buildup of silent tension that accumulated over time. Curiously, when talking about the song Shepard said "I don't even know what attrition means anymore." It's doubtful that he temporarily forgot the literal meaning of the word-- Shepard probably just meant to convey the fact that he no longer feels attrition in the context of band politics. Thayil probably wanted to avoid that entire discussion, so he jumped in and prevented it from happening immediately.
It's easy to imagine that Cornell's personality and artistic influence became the dominant one inside the band over time. The song is most likely directed at the fact that Cornell was probably leaning on the rest of the band and trying to get them to produce music that would have mainstream appeal. Shepard may have said that the song is about the Bush administration -- that explanation makes sense -- but the lyrics might also have a dual meaning. This song about an out-of-control leader was most likely Shepard's perception of Cornell before the band split up in 1997. This interpretation is even more plausible given the content of the lyrics on the next track.
Track 9: Black Saturday
Don't Humor Me
Kill me right away if I start to get slow
And don't remember how to separate the worm from the apple
Don't wait till tomorrow. Kill me right away if I start to listen
to the voices telling all the mouths what they need to swallow
This is another odd song with a set of curious lyrics from Cornell and further evidence that he is full of contradictions. On one hand, he seems to be begging to be buried and forgotten in the event that he "sells out" and tries to cater to popular musical taste. Yet, Cornell did exactly that on his solo album "Scream"-- he hired producer Timbaland and made an all-out effort to create trendy music in the style of Gnarls Barkley. Many Soundgarden fans wrote Cornell of completely at that point for "going pop." Oddly enough, Cornell not only seems to respect the judgement of his fans-- he agrees with them completely.
Correct Me When I Go Astray
Do that for me, it's the least that you can do
Don't be afraid, I would do the same for you
Burn out any memory of me ever breathing, til I'm born again
It's very rare for a rock star to get this personal with his fans. Cornell seems to be asking his fans to not buy his music simply because it has his name on it and to call him out when he goes astray. On one hand, I'm glad that Cornell is self-aware enough to know that he has been accused of selling out, but on the other hand I am slightly put off by the fact that Cornell cares this deeply about what longtime listeners think about his artistic endeavors.
If Cornell was busy being a fashion model in France, getting married and opening a trendy restaurant, it would be dishonest for him to put out a "grunge" album. In light of the fact that he was living a bourgeoise "rock star" life at the time when he wrote this song, a video like this makes perfect sense. All in all, Cornell has always put out music that matched up with the experiences that he was going through. Cornell really has nothing to be ashamed about. He's always created music that matched the experiences that he was going through at the time.
What I find amusing is that underneath all of these apparently humble gestures is a fundamentally arrogant stance. Cornell believes he can easily be "born again" at any time and resume being the frontman of Soundgarden, no matter how badly he "messes up" in the eyes of fans.
Actually, he's right. The Soundgarden comeback has been a huge success, and they've (so far) enjoyed sold out shows, good albums sales figures and positive reviews from almost every critic.
An Expression of Gratitude
I was thirsty. I remember that you gave me some water.
I was angry at everything at once. You gave me no trouble.
I was crying. I remember you gave me your shoulder.
Here Cornell offers some gratitude. The appreciation is most likely directed toward his fellow bandmates as well as all the Soundgarden fans who have supported his musical career over the years. Sometimes, conveying a message indirectly via song lyrics or other means is more effective than openly saying whatever is on your mind.
When combined with the chorus "do that for me, it's the least that you can do" these lyrics take on a new meaning. It's Cornell's subtle plea to let him get away with a few career blunders here and there.
Exposing the Flesh of the King Animal
The band probably used "King Animal" as a metaphor for Soundgarden. The description works. The sludgy, saturated riffs and odd musical stylings of all the band members collectively bring to mind the image of a large, lumbering monster from some ancient era. The name King Animal also suggests the human race. In many ways King Animal is the most human album in Soundgarden's discography.
Human beings make blunders. They're emotional, they get confused and they go astray from time to time. Cornell is a master at giving the audience hints of his humanity without shoving it directly in our faces.
Soundgarden fans enabled Cornell to go from cleaning up fish guts to a career as a rock star. Thanks to his listeners, Cornell traveled the world and played music in front of thousands of screaming fans. If Cornell openly expressed his gratitude in plain language on a comeback album, it would definitely come across as sappy. However, these sentiments work fairly well within the context of this song because Cornell is adept at concealing them deep within the folds of complex imagery and lyrics.
Seattle bands like Soundgarden would inspire other bands to express feelings in the context of a rock song, but the post-grunge bands often expressed themselves in a more direct way. "Emo" rock bands were far too over-the-top with their displays of emotion and often came off as whiny or insincere. In my view, that's why the emo movement was short lived. Emo bands never achieved the widespread success that the so-called "grunge" bands from Seattle managed to achieve.
Track 10: Halfway There
A Crash Landing
I woke up with my feet nailed down and my head moving the speed of sound
I had a dream I was caught in a maze and couldn't find my way back out
Some were born to move mountains around and some to rot away in jail
Cornell -- originally just a starving artist from the northwest who worked in a restaurant and was in a band -- had a legitimate shot to become an international star on the level of Michael Jackson, Elvis or Frank Sinatra. Unlike the other rock stars who came from Seattle, Cornell took that opportunity and tried to go all the way with it. Probably, though, at some point Cornell had to look at himself in the mirror and say: I'm not cut out for this.
Cornell is a genuinely strange, complex person. His personality fits well within the rock and roll idiom, but doesn't easily translate into a pop persona. The Beatles may have been able to appeal to both the pop crowd and the rock and roll crowd. Cornell couldn't quite pull that off. Owning up to the fact that he failed to achieve his goal of rock and roll stardom was probably a painful process. It's reasonable to suspect that Cornell sees his hometown, his upbringing, his past experiences -- in short, all of the factors beyond his control that contributed to the formation of his eccentric personality -- as a type of jail from which he'll never escape.
This Is Just How I am
I get an itch, and when I am scratching everything can go to hell
Here Cornell offers up an excuse. This is as close as Cornell gets to making a direct statement on the album. The itch that Cornell is describing to Soundgarden fans is his desire to become a star. To think of his goal to achieve pop stardom in terms of an itch that needs scratching is an admission of a certain amount of neediness. Cornell seems to have accepted this slightly uncool aspect of his personality and is asking for Soundgarden followers to accept it as well. This type of plea for acceptance will probably come as a bit of a shock to longtime Soundgarden fans, as Cornell rarely addresses the fan base in the context of a song. Out of all the songs on the album, Halfway There and Black Saturday have received the worst criticism. They were uncomfortable moments, but Cornell needed to get it out of his system-- and the fans needed to hear them as well.
Putting Things in Perspective
Did almost become good enough? Should a good life be so hard won?
Have you got a car? Somewhere to sleep? Someone who loves you? Something to eat?
I would say you're doing better than most, though maybe not as well as some
Over the years Cornell has grown into more of a conversational style lyricist. This song is very folksy and sounds like something off of "Carry On." His insistence in including a song like this on Soundgarden's comeback album is a sign that Cornell intends to stay true to himself and the musical direction that he's moved towards over the years.
At first these lyrics seem like Cornell is offering up a little bit of pandering-- a "my rock and roll problems are just the same as yours" type of thing. Thankfully though, that's not what this song is about.
With Halfway There, Cornell is posing a question. The tone of the question is slightly accusatory and it's directed at Cornell's critics. Essentially, Cornell is wondering aloud whether or not anyone is even trying to strive to achieve ambitious goals anymore.
In part, this song is Cornell's roundabout way of calling out Soundgarden fans for giving up on him just for the simple fact that Cornell had the audacity to try to get "all the way there." Of course, had he expressed this thought in a direct way he would have come across as whiny. Though the music is somewhat bland, the fact that Cornell managed to get his complex message across in one song and without coming across as obnoxious is a tribute to Cornell's maturity, clever use of language and artistic growth.
I didn't see you on the trail
Though he sings it in a gentle way, the actual lyric is actually somewhat standoffish. In the previous song, Cornell already apologized. Halfway There is all about Cornell putting forth his point of view. If the lyrics are any indication, Cornell seems to believe that everyone should be striving to do a little more. After acknowledging his own failures in the previous song, what Cornell manages to do here is call out some of the embittered fans-- while also asking them for a little respect. His attempt at stardom was misguided, but at least he made the effort. It's as if he's saying "I didn't see you on the trail. What have you been doing to make your dreams a reality? Do you even have dreams? If not: what's wrong with you?"
Almost-- but Not Quite
Sometimes when you're shooting an arrow, it can fly across the sky so proud
I would go all the way to the sun if I didn't have to come back down
Soundgarden was the first to get signed to a major label, but had late mainstream success compared to other Seattle bands. Initially Soundgarden was a hard rock band with a metal edge. Based on the side projects that Thayil pursued during Soundgarden's inactive years one might imagine that he would have been happy if they stuck to their earlier, raw, in-your-face style. Thayil would have been satisfied if Soundgarden simply maintained a degree of metal credibility and a strong cult following while continuing to make innovative music. Thayil might have had his way if not for the success of Black Hole Sun. The mainstream success of that song probably changed the whole dynamic of the band. After the success of that song, Cornell saw the potential to produce albums that would appeal to both the rock crowd and to the mainstream.
Though Soundgarden continued to get good critical reviews, they were never able to go completely mainstream the way the Beatles did in the 1960s. Cornell has been chasing the success of Black Hole Sun for his entire career since the breakup of the band.
Cornell is at his best when he expresses his unique ideas in the context of Soundgarden. He isn't a bad songwriter, but he is an odd person. His eccentricities show in all the music that he produces. Cornell's peculiarities work for him in a rock and roll setting, but they work against him when he tries to craft pop songs. His best songs make masterful use alternate tunings and non-standard melodies, but pop music demands simplified melodies and hooks. Some people have an innate understanding of what makes a pop song, but Cornell is not a pop songwriter.
Black Hole Sun was something of an accidental hit. The high weirdness of the Black Hole Sun video and the fact that MTV put it on heavy rotation had a lot to do with the success of the song. If it were not for that video, Black Hole Sun may have never been a hit and Soundgarden may have gone in a completely different artistic direction.
Track 11: Worse Dreams
Seattle's Self-conscious Rock Stars
Let it swirl around you now and let it fall apart
Put it back again and find every piece but it's not the same
And you can never be sure just how it looked when you started
Turn around again now and do it over and over
Hanging on the tail of the sunrise till you can't let go
The members of Soundgarden often talk about how they were disappointed when the bands that they enjoyed growing up reunited only to release sub-par material. Soundgarden has always been very concerned about their perception in the eyes of fans. They made a point out of disbanding at the height of their popularity to avoid hanging around for too long and boring the audience with uninspired material. They did not want to allow record contracts to force the band into producing sub-par music. With these facts in mind, it's understandable that the members of Soundgarden might be reluctant to suddenly reappear out of nowhere and produce a new album.
During an interview, Cornell expressed an initial hesitation to listening to old Soundgarden material. Apparently he feared that listening to old songs created twenty years ago would remind him of looking at embarrassing "baby pictures." He was surprised, however, at how smart the band was at arranging the songs. Being aware of all the faults and weaknesses of his fellow band members probably gave him a distorted perception of their true abilities. Now, enough time has passed and Cornell is able to full appreciate the band that he grew up with.
The Thrill of Taking a Risk
Standing in the line of fire, you're wild and free
This lyric is an explanation for Cornell's tendency to take career risks. At this point, if Soundgarden produced sub-par quality music the band would have to endure a dent in a reputation that all the members of the band worked hard to achieve. Yet they all seem to be willing to go out on a limb and produce a new album.
Track 12: Eyelid's Mouth
In the eyelid's mouth, on the iris tongue
When a scream calls out, only a tear has won
Cornell often uses apparently nonsensical imagery to evoke a particular mood rather than convey an exact idea. Eyelid's Mouth is one of the more abstract songs on the album. Repression is a common theme in Soundgarden songs. Songs like Head Down present images of a struggle against an opposing force. Head Down seems to be about a struggle against authority, whereas this song is clearly about internal struggles.
Maintaining a Facade
Who let the water run down? (Cry internal)
Who let the river run dry? (Live internal)
Who let the water run out? (Burn internal)
Who let the river run wild? (Die internal)
Water is a recurring theme throughout King Animal. In literature water is often used to symbolize spirit or life. Interpreting the use of water in this way makes sense in the context of this song, which could be interpreted as a song about the necessity to strangle and suppress one's internal spirit.
As both a father and as a musician in the public eye, Cornell probably feels the need to conceal and control some of his true emotions. Cornell probably bottles his emotions up and often finds himself screaming in his head. His internal turmoil (represented as screams) is not always appropriate to express outwardly. Cornell admits that finally, only a tear has won. Through the use of cryptic lyrics Cornell is able to convey these ideas in a way that is understood only if you want to understand it, after repeated listens and a certain amount of thought.
Interestingly, Cornell's heavily criticized electronic album was called "Scream." Cornell is at his best when he is repressing himself and holding back. This is probably frustrating for him, because he may perceive that he can only achieve success when he isn't enjoying himself. In interviews Cornell has lamented the fact that even though they experienced a degree of popularity in their prime, Soundgarden really enjoy themselves-- they were probably worried about selling out, the perception of their fans, dealing with personal issues, etc.
Track 13: Rowing
Don't know where I'm going I just keep on rowing
Can't see the sky, nothing's on the horizon
Can't feel my hands and the water keeps rising
At this point Cornell has been involved in music for most of his life. When he began his career with Soundgarden, his initial aim was to try to achieve "Beatlemania" levels of fame and stardom. Now, he's beginning to suspect that this will probably never happen. He hasn't quite given up, but he sees his chances of achieving all of his goals growing increasingly less likely every day.
Giving Up on Dreams
I heard an echo but the answer had changed
From the word I remember that I started out saying
Most musicians are lucky to achieve even a fraction of what Soundgarden and Cornell have already accomplished. Even though he has highly unrealistic goals, it is still hard to not be moved to hear Cornell resign himself to rowing around with his old band-- playing the same venues that he's already played in, being nominated for the same awards, etc. In a sense there's nothing more for Cornell to achieve and nothing new for him to do other than what he's already done. He's already tried to experiment with other projects not related to music, but it's probably not the same.
Can't fall asleep cause I'll wake up dead
Living is cheating if you're not pulling oars
But the current is leaving. I'll get mine, you'll get yours
Without a goal to strive for, Cornell is forced to re-calibrate. He could simply do nothing and wait for the end to come. By now Cornell and his family is wealthy enough to never have to worry about money. Instead of giving up completely, however, Cornell chooses to find meaning in act of living itself. This new attitude matches up well with the attitude of his bandmates. Thayil and the rest of the band seem more interested in preserving the Soundgarden legacy at this point, as opposed to making an attempt to achieve higher levels of fame and mainstream acceptance.