What happens when lead singer Chris Cornell removes his self-imposed limitations on songwriting and embraces his own inspirations and desires? The world gets caught in the inescapable pull of 1994’s Black Hole Sun. The song is Soundgarden’s greatest commercial success, but it also underscores the turning point when Cornell was able to break free of his self-imposed song-writing restrictions and his constant focus on maintaining the “Soundgarden Sound.”
“Black Hole Sun” entered the public space on the back of 1994’s Superunknown, Soundgarden’s fourth album. It’s a masterpiece; a case study of experimental sound design and songwriting that, normally found in the niche sub genres of the expanding grunge and metal scenes, managed to resonate with audiences of all rock genres at a commercially-successful level.
The Seattle-based band first carved a place for themselves 6 years prior in the alternative and metal scenes with Ultra OK. The 1988 album, the praise of critics and new fans alike, was a big step forward from their small, but solid, foundation of singles and EPs. The opening song “Flower,” introduced listeners to a band that radiated confidence in their sound. Opening with moody atmospheric chords, dreamy vocals, and a subtle, marching-style accompaniment from the drums, the song quickly drops the expositional facade and dives into the rock.
With success and positive reviews resting on Soundgarden’s shoulders, A&M Records signed the band for their next release, Louder Than Love. The Soundgarden “sound,” as Cornell would later describe it, remained true and strong. Washy—yet clear—guitar chords and riffs; contemptuous vocals; and of course, those grunge-genre drum-grooves which always ensured that songs felt “on the move.” Standout tracks include “Hands All Over Me” and “Gun;” while fans of later bands like Tool or grunge-era-Shinedown might find pleasant similarities in gems like “Loud Love.”
Their third record, Badmotorfinger, is a bit of a controversy. Sales numbers obviously complement the hypothetical bar-chart showing Soundgarden’s growing popularity after each successive album. But, of the reviews from both fans and big-name artists that have cited Soundgarden as an inspiration, there’s an interesting correlation with either not knowing much of this album or actively disliking it entirely.
Which brings us to singer Chris Cornell and producer Michael Beinhorn’s dilemma on the outset of the fourth album. Beinhorn was reviewing demos for the next release, and was reportedly worried by what he thought was a lack of songs that were “placeable together” in some sort of cohesive album. Bienhorn decided to sit down with Cornell and discuss the issue he was seeing. Right then and there, Beinhorn identified that Cornell’s obsession with giving the fans the right “Soundgarden sound” was completely blocking him from his own creativity. After the conversation, they acknowledged, identified, and removed these shackles on Cornell’s writing. The veil was lifted, and “Black Hole Sun” was waiting to be crafted. During a drive home from Bear Creek Studio, near Seattle, Cornell found his inspiration for the song.
“It sparked from something a news anchor said on TV and I heard wrong. I heard ‘blah blah blah black hole sun blah blah blah’. I thought that would make an amazing song title, but what would it sound like? It all came together, pretty much the whole arrangement including the guitar solo that’s played beneath the riff. I spent a lot of time spinning those melodies in my head so I wouldn’t forget them,” he continued. “I got home and whistled it into a Dictaphone. The next day I brought it into the real world, assigning a couple of key changes in the verse to make the melodies more interesting. Then I wrote the lyrics and that was similar, a stream of consciousness based on the feeling I got from the chorus and title”
Beinhorn received the song as the last item on a four-track demo from Cornell. The first track was “Fell on Black Days.” In its “demo” form, Beinhorn didn’t think too much of “Fell on Black Days,” or the next two songs. But then he heard the final track – the nascent version of “Black Hole Sun.”.
Recording took place at Bad Animals Studio, Studio X in Seattle Washington. Credits name Beinhorn and Soundgarden as Producers, with Jason Corsaro as engineer, and Adam Kasper as assistant engineer. Mixing was done by Brendan O’Brien, and overall songwriting credit was handed to Cornell.
The band wanted to record the song quickly, but Beinhorn insisted that they spend more time on it. He remembers thinking that the track had potential to be a “statement” in its own right. Beinhorn was very influenced by Electronic music at the time of recording, specifically techno music which he remembers was one of the bigger sub genres around that year. Beinhorn explained in a Produce Like a Pro interview in 2019: “It’s all synths, there’s a sense of hyper reality, they’re so isolated and you can do anything…”
Bad Animals sported a SSL 4064 G-Series at the studio. Recording was done on tape using the Studer A827. While the Drums were cut to 16, everything else was 24. Matt Cameron played drums without a click, using a DW Kit with Zildijian K cymbals and a Gregg Keplinger 14/8 snare (which was mic’d separately). Except for the high hats and cymbals, the whole drum kit went through Neve 1057 Mic Preamp/EQs. Neumann U67 were used for overheads. Instead of placing them straight over the cymbals, Beinhorn had them pulled back, almost right over the snare so they’d pick up more impact from the rest of the kit.
The bass on the track was played by Ben Shepherd. Beinhorn liked RnB, and explained to Produce Like a Pro in 2019 that the basis for the bass sound that he crafted was found in dub music. He recalls they used a jazz bass, one that was relatively newer (for the time). The DBX 120X-DS, a Subharmonic Synthesizer, was used to supplement the sound.
Kim Thayil played three different guitars for his parts: 1) Gretsch silver jet guitar 2) Gretsch Duo Jet and 3) Fender Jazzmaster. The track also uses a Leslie 16 & Fender Vibratone. It’s a rotating speaker inside the cabinet, more intense than 122 cabinets, and needs an amplifier stage. Beinhorn recalls using a Marshall JMP 50 Watt and Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier. While he wasn’t usually a fan of the Mesa in general, when they paired it with the Marshall, he was happy with the result. They used 2 mics per amp – each rig had a shure sm 57 and RCA BK 5B.
The Heavier arpeggio parts were a Leslie mixed in with the Gretsch, with the Leslie spinning at a lower speed.Thayil recalls being skeptical about doing the song, but was converted when he heard the solo: “I didn’t orient myself toward radio and so I may have been a little bit more resistant because it was not necessarily friendly to my style of playing guitar until you get to the solo […] When you get to the solo it’s like, ‘OK, OK. I’ll do that.”
Beinhorn explained that the solo was “…two guitars. The composite is pretty rando. It’s what Brandon did when he mixed – he picked the right moments. It’s two tracks of Kim going balistic.”
As Beinhorn recalled, Cornell or Shepherd brought in an old PA, and they found they could get great distorted vocals through that PA.
“Black Hole Sun” found its way onto US Billboard charts like Radio Songs, Alternative Airplay, Mainstream Rock, and Mainstream Top 40—ultimately landing the #1 position on Billboard’s US Alternative Songs year-end ranking. At the 1995 Grammy Awards, “Black Hole Sun” received a nomination for Best Rock Song, and took home the award for Best Hard Rock Performance.
Its lasting popularity has seen heights as high as #9 on Nielsen Music’s “US Mainstream Rock” Chart for the 2010-2019 decade; with a specific resurgence in 2017 to #53 on Billboard’s US Hot Rock Songs chart. However, the bright ranking of this latter achievement underscores a more mournful occurrence, quite in step with the contrasting imagery evoked by Black Hole Sun’s name. That year, Chris Cornell was found in his hotel on May 17, his passing ruled a suicide. He had reportedly been in good mental health, further adding to the suddenness and shock of the impact felt by family and the broader community.
Despite his breakthrough in songwriting decades earlier, and the congregation of the international community with “Black Hole Sun’s” resurgence in 2017— the singer expressed an unhappy regard for the song’s legacy as Soundgarden’s lasting hit.
“That was probably the song with the most ambiguous and least focused lyrics. No one seems to get this, but “Black Hole Sun” is sad. Because the melody is really pretty, everyone thinks it’s almost chipper, which is ridiculous […] I sure didn’t have an understanding after I wrote it. I was just sucked in by the music and I was painting a picture with the lyrics […] There was no real idea for me to get across. […] I guess it worked for a lot of people who heard it, but I have no idea how you’d begin to take that one literally”
By reducing the specificity and focusing more on the delivery and emotion, more doors are opened for people to find their own meaning. But it is often that very same self-criticism and doubt which Cornell speaks of, that writers use to create such an artistic triumph. “Black Hole Sun” was a focus on contrasting imagery, creating an unreal, yet comfortably-familiar place that listeners could turn to. And they did.