Happy 25th Anniversary to Temple of the Dog’s eponymous debut album, originally released April 16, 1991. [Stream album and watch videos below]
Blame it on progressively hazy memories of my fledgling teenage years, but for years now, I’ve naively remembered Temple of the Dog’s first and only album as having surfaced after Pearl Jam’s Ten and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger arrived in the latter half of 1991. Revisionist history on my part, which, depending on how one looks at it, is both false and true.
Temple of the Dog was actually released four months before Pearl Jam’s debut and nearly six months before Soundgarden’s seminal third LP. However, the album flew well below the radar of popular consciousness during the handful of months immediately following its release. Indeed it was only within the broader context of Ten and Badmotorfinger’s widespread success that people were compelled to reevaluate and embrace Temple of the Dog in a whole new light.
The story of the album’s genesis dates back even further, to the tragic circumstances that shook the Seattle music community on March 19, 1990. This was the day that Andrew Wood, the lead singer and songwriter for the influential bands Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone, died from a heroin overdose at the age of 24. Reflecting on his friend and kindred musical spirit’s passing years later, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell confessed that “It wasn’t like this, ‘oh, he finally went and did it. We saw that coming.’ It wasn’t like that. It still had an air of real got-hit-by-a-bus kind of tragedy to it.” Wood’s death came just days before the scheduled release of Mother Love Bone’s critically acclaimed debut album Apple, which would ultimately see the light of day four months later, courtesy of Stardog/Mercury Records.
As Cornell processed and grieved the loss of his friend, he found inspiration by way of composing a few songs in his friend’s honor. “Say Hello 2 Heaven” and “Reach Down” were the first compositions to emerge, representing considerably more subdued, melodic structures relative to the denser, more propulsive fare that defined Soundgarden’s signature heavy rock sound at the time. Encouraged by the songs’ direction, Cornell solicited the support of Wood’s Mother Love Bone bandmates and Pearl Jam founding members, Jeff Ament (bass) and Stone Gossard (rhythm guitar).
“The songs I wrote weren't really stylistically like something my band Soundgarden would be used to playing or be natural for us to do,” Cornell explained during an April 1991 interview with radio station KISW. “But it was material that Andy really would have liked, so I didn't really want to just throw it out the window or put it away in a box, y'know, put the tape away and never listen to it again. So I thought it would be good to make a single, and I thought it would be really great to record it with these guys, Stone and Jeff, because they were in his band and I just thought it would be a really fun thing to do.” Soon thereafter, the trio recruited Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron (who also joined Pearl Jam in 1998), as well as future Pearl Jam co-founders Mike McCready (lead guitar) and Eddie Vedder (vocals).
The sextet branded themselves as Temple of the Dog, a nod to lyrics that Wood penned for the opening verse of Mother Love Bone’s “Man of Golden Words,” the ninth track on Apple (“Wanna show you something like the joy inside my heart / Seems I've been living in the temple of the dog / Where would I live, if I were a man of golden words? / Or would I live at all?”). Recorded in nimble fashion over the course of two weeks in November and December 1990 at Seattle’s famed London Bridge Studio and released in April 1991, the band’s self-titled debut album sold modestly at best in its first year in stores. But in the aftermath of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden’s dual breakthroughs later that year, the team at A&M Records seized the opportunity to capitalize on the bands’ collaboration, reissuing the album in the summer of 1992 and aggressively promoting the original lead single “Hunger Strike” to radio and MTV.
A harbinger of his songwriting prowess that has evolved in thrilling ways with Soundgarden, Audioslave, and his solo career, Cornell wrote all ten songs that comprise Temple of the Dog. The aforementioned album opener and second single “Say Hello 2 Heaven” is the album’s most explicit and stirring tribute to Wood, with Cornell injecting the song with his unceasingly passionate vocals and penchant for unembellished introspection. Painfully poignant refrains such as “Now it seems like too much love / Is never enough” and “I never wanted / To write these words down for you / With the pages of phrases / Of things we'll never do” shed light upon Cornell’s conflicted heart as he attempts to reconcile Wood’s death.
Clocking in at a generous eleven minutes and change, the gospel-tinged hymn “Reach Down” follows. Atop the moderately more amped-up arrangement, Cornell relays a dream he had of Wood before he adopts the perspective of his friend in reflecting upon his life and legacy (“And I've got room to spread my wings / And my messages of love, yeah / Love was my drug / But that's not what I died of”). Written shortly after Cornell learned of Wood’s passing, the resonant “Reach Down” introduces a spiritual dimension to Cornell’s ruminations, which coalesce for an uplifting homage to his fallen friend.
The other eight songs that feature on Temple of the Dog were spawned from a handful of Cornell’s work-in-progress compositions and Ament and Gossard’s rough demos, which the band refined in the studio together. While the subtext within these songs is open to various interpretations, many of them can certainly be evaluated and contextualized in light of Wood’s death. The sobering “Times of Trouble” functions as Cornell’s desperate plea to a friend to avoid the futile solace of drug-fueled escapism, while “Four Walled World” examines the metaphorical prison of a life constrained by pain and addiction, both serving as unequivocal allusions to Wood’s suffering and ultimate fate.
One of Cornell’s most enthralling vocal performances ever, album closer “All Night Thing” can most literally be interpreted as a man trying to find meaning within the ephemera of a one night stand or attempting to define a fledgling relationship that has no clear outcome. Or, within the broader context of the album’s predominant thematic thread, the songs can very well reference Wood and the permanence of his addictions, akin to a perpetual night.
Other notable standouts include the adrenalized third single “Pushin’ Forward Back,” which explores the push and pull of sustaining the support of a loved one, in this case the narrator’s mother. A prime showcase of McCready’s stellar guitar work, the somber “Call Me a Dog” depicts the struggles of a man confronted by the unreciprocated affection of a partner who believes he has not lived up to her unfair expectations.
The most instantly recognizable and universally beloved track here, of course, is the unforgettable “Hunger Strike,” in which Cornell and Vedder exchange identical verses atop a rather straightforward guitar-driven melody. In the book that accompanies Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam Twenty film documentary, a humbled Vedder recalls how he came to sing the second verse, explaining that “I just kind of stepped up and did it. And I remember being a little nervous about doing it, but [Cornell] was really happy about how it sounded, which was great. The fact that he asked me to be on that record, I mean, that’s the first time I was ever on a real record. So that could be one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever been on, or, for sure, the most meaningful.”
Upon cursory listen, “Hunger Strike” appears to rebuke the abuse of power, political, financial, psychological, or otherwise, with socialist, Robin Hood-like overtones of taking from the rich (“I don't mind stealing bread from the mouths of decadence) while avoiding exploitation of the poor (“But I can't feed on the powerless when my cup's already overfilled”). “I was wanting to express the gratitude for my life, but also disdain for people where that's not enough, where they want more,” Cornell confided in Pearl Jam Twenty. “There's no way to really have a whole lot more than you need usually without taking from somebody else that can't really afford to give it to you. It's sort of about taking advantage of a person or people who really don't have anything.”
But a closer inspection of the song’s lyrics suggest that “Hunger Strike” also contains the perspective of two bands bound for the big time, attempting to make sense of the fact that they are destined to soon benefit—financially and otherwise—from the same decadent, corporate machine they condemn, while many continue to suffer with far fewer means at their disposal.
In retrospect, Temple of the Dog is an amazing musical artifact that captures the convergence of two ambitious bands on the cusp of realizing their superpowers, global fame looming in the not too distant days ahead. A rare and unique proposition, indeed. “The camaraderie and the healthy competition part, I found later was unusual,” Cornell admitted in Pearl Jam Twenty. “And it was Johnny Ramone who actually pointed that out to me later, talking about the friendship he saw between Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, saying ‘I’ve never seen that before, New York wasn’t like that, we hated each other, we would screw each other up, at every turn if you could, you would mess the other band up.’ The best thing about it is, I think, that you learn from each other. And you’re inspired by each other. For me, Temple of the Dog grew out of that.”
The fact that the members of Temple of the Dog have performed these songs live on only a few occasions and never recorded again together only adds to Temple of the Dog’s undeniable mystique and brilliance, both of which are sure to endure for a long, long time to come.