Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is Temple of the Dog's 1991 self-titled debut.
Of all the great cosmic injustices one can expect to face in life, surely being born in the '90s and not coming of age during that time was one of them. This anachronistic view is shared subjectively by those for whom the music of the '00s, while certainly good in its own way, simply did not capture the chaos within the budding adolescent mess.
Compared to their '90s counterparts, music from the nu-metal era felt perhaps a bit too polished and self-indulgent. It certainly hasn’t aged as well, often becoming an exercise in nostalgia rather than a legitimate artistic pursuit.
The '90s is full of great records, specifically those that grew out what is now considered the legendary Seattle revolution. ‘Nevermind’, ‘Ten’, ‘Dirt’, ‘Superunknown’ to name the most obvious. If coming of age during this time was ideal, then at least the luxuries of modern life compensate the unlucky '90s babies by making all of this back catalogue readily available.
Some albums change the game at the time of their release. For others their significance grows later on. And for those of us who observe from the distance of time, certain albums can become hidden treasures. For the latter group, ‘Temple of The Dog’ became a mystical collaberation that combined two of the most durable bands from this era, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. It feels like an origin tale.
According to Chris Cornell, the death of innocence within this music scene did not occur with the tragic death of Kurt Cobain, but years earlier with Andrew Wood. A charismatic performer, Wood’s death profoundly affected Cornell (his roommate for a time) and Wood’s bandmates in Mother Love Bone (several of whom would later form Pearl Jam). The result was ‘Temple of the Dog’, a moving tribute to a fallen compatriot.
This tribute is at its most moving with opening track Say Hello 2 Heaven, which sees Cornell penning a personal goodbye to Wood. “I never wanted to write these words down for you/ with the pages of phrases of all the things we’ll never do”, he laments. This is the first of many songs that gives Cornell’s stunning vocal capacity room to explore all observed sonic boundaries, but nowhere else is it as moving as it is on this eulogy.
Reach Down, at a staggering 11 minutes long, was designed as a giant “fuck you” to any expectations of commercialism or musical dilution. The song is mainly wall to wall guitar solos from Mike McCready, who was clearly told to just play until his fingers bled. This protest might not seem significant to those of the digital age, but placing a track such as this as the second song on an album was not exactly conducive to record sales. It helped preserve its artistic integrity.
In a further reflection on the special bond between the Seattle groups, Cornell invited Pearl Jam’s new singer to sing on Hunger Strike. Eddie Vedder had impressed his band mates with the lyrics he provided for a Gossard penned instrumental which would later become Pearl Jam's Footsteps. Simultaneously, Cornell was writing lyrics for the same piece of music which appears as Times of Trouble on Temple of the Dog
Choosing which song you like better is like choosing between eating and breathing. Vedder’s professional debut on a record still sounds like a revelation. When he clocks in for the second verse “I don’t mind stealing bread from the miles of decadence”, it feels like a cool breeze. It then develops into a perfect duet. You can just hear all the first time listeners today saying “It’s everything I want it to be!”. Even Pearl Jam at the time supposedly thought to themselves “Hey, our guy is pretty good too!”.
For fans looking back, Hunger Strike becomes the centrepoint of the record because Vedder’s contribution makes it the most complete version of a Pearl Jam/Soundgarden collaboration. But to stop here would be madness. Hardcore grit in the form of Pushin’ Forward Back is yet to come. As is Times of Trouble, a helping hand to encourage the downtrodden.
At this point of a word count the risk of boring the reader to death with in depth descriptions and analyses of each of the album’s tracks increases significantly. So in this case, in the spirit of the album being appraised, this writer will forego any further descriptive passages and defy the common practice of assessing each individual track. Knowing what is expected and opting out is what makes Temple of the Dog so special. It now stands alone as a perfect body of work untainted by the fake gloss of a commercial hijacking.
The album has remained in the popular imagination and has even recently seen the group reform to play some shows in the States. They never toured at the time, instead opting to simply play music together and let it stand as a monument to that time. It felt appropriate to take this gem out of the Golden Vault, because for those of us who find something truly unique and relatable in this genre, the idea of Temple of the Dog is an exciting prospect and an even better experience.