Soundgarden’s songwriting by the numbers

07 Dec

Has Chris Cornell lost a step as a songwriter? Completely subjective numbers suggest he may have.

If you’ve ever wondered just how crazy I am, today’s post may give you some insight into that. This is admittedly stuff that will likely to be of interest to almost no one, but hey, I did it anyway.

When my new Soundgarden CD finally arrived the other day, I excitedly leafed through the liner notes. I always like to read the lyrics – singer and primary songwriter Chris Cornell comes up with some amazing ones – and I’m always curious as to who wrote what on which songs.

I was surprised to see that King Animal is a different kind of Soundgarden beast. Unlike previous albums, relatively few songs were written by Cornell, with other members of the band contributing more than they have in the past. He wrote almost all the lyrics as usual, but Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron were all over the credits.

It’s too early to tell where this album will rank among the band’s pantheon, but I’ve listened to it enough to pick out what I think are the good songs and the ones that are, well, just okay (Soundgarden doesn’t write bad ones, dammit).

In the vein of previous statistical analyses, where I’ve set out to determine what are the best movies ever numerically, or which actors provide the best payoffs, I wondered if the same could be done to song-writing by my favourite band. I was curious as to whether we could determine whether a particular Soundgarden song would be good or bad based on who wrote it.

It was a mad undertaking and one that was purely subjective. With movie ratings, I used fan numbers from the Internet Movie Database and critics’ reviews from Metacritic to come up with a sort of statistical consensus. But with songs, no such databases exist, to my knowledge. So I did the only thing I could do: I made up the ratings.

I took Soundgarden’s last four albums, the ones with the current lineup, and scored each song from one to four, with four being “awesome,” three being “good,” two being “okay,” and one being “meh.” (Remember: Soundgarden doesn’t write bad songs.) I then looked at who wrote each and tallied up the band members’ scores in each of the four ratings. I also split out the numbers for King Animal too, just to see how different the new album is from previous ones.

Here are those numbers in chart form:

As we can see, guitarist Thayil doesn’t write a lot of songs (only 11 of a total 56), but the ones he does write are almost always good (or at least they score well in my books). This holds true for all four albums and especially with King Animal. Bassist Shepherd has traditionally written some of the band’s weakest songs, although that trend reverses itself on the latest.

The most interesting data points involve Cornell, who doesn’t fare well in total percentages, both overall and on the latest album. However, he has been involved in writing more than 75 per cent of the band’s songs, with Shepherd a distant second at 33. In terms of total good or awesome songs written, Cornell’s 25 is more than the rest of the band combined.

In baseball terms, Cornell is clearly the band’s MVP while Thayil is an extremely effective pinch hitter. In similar terms, Cornell’s trailing off in production on this latest album must be of concern to fans. It may also be why critics are giving King Animal okay reviews, rather than the raves they awarded the likes of Badmotorfinger and Superunknown.

Has Chris Cornell lost a step when it comes to songwriting? The total numbers and percentages on King Animal, as well as the so-so reception of his solo albums, seem to suggest so. By the way, we will not speak of that Timbaland abomination. Such things cannot be mentioned in the same breath as Soundgarden.

If anyone’s curious, here’s my completely subjective grading list in PDF form of all the songs from the band’s last four albums. I’m sure there will be some violent disagreements, but as a super fan I felt somewhat qualified to make these assessments. And yes, I know how ridiculous this all is.

Interesting bit of trivia: Soundgarden (current lineup) has only one song on a core album that all four members co-wrote. I consider that song – Jesus Christ Pose – to not only be the band’s best song, but the best song ever written.

So… does anyone out there still think I’m sane?

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Posted by on December 7, 2012 in soundgarden


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