Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
The greatest trick Blind Melon pulled was never sounding like Blind Melon. In 1992, the band’s self-titled debut was practically a genre unto itself: one part melodic folk, three parts aggressive, brooding, funky Southern-fried alt rock. The members—guitarist Rogers Stevens, multi-instrumentalist Christopher Thorn, rhythm section Glen Graham and Brad Smith, and frontman Shannon Hoon—were touted by industry folk as the next big thing. This prophecy did not pan out, at least not for a while. After a year’s worth of modestly attended live shows and two under-the-radar singles, Capitol Records lobbed a Hail Mary, releasing “No Rain,” the album’s poppy, black-sheep misfit. Bolstered by the now-iconic Bee Girl video, “No Rain” blew things up into the goddamned stratosphere. The good news: international success, a pair of Grammy nominations, and millions of dollars in sales. The not-so-good news: The band that had earned the respect of everyone from Soundgarden to Neil Young to Guns N’ Roses was now viewed as a bunch of sugary, happy-go-lucky pop-infused hippies. This was not the plan. This was not Blind Melon.
In lieu of hitting the studio for a follow-up album, the band had little choice but to commit to a second full year of touring. Hundreds of days on the road made Blind Melon tighter, more confident, and better musicians. The time away from home also mired the group in destructive indulgences, including overuse of drugs that most happy-go-lucky hippies would never entertain.
Blind Melon descended on New Orleans in 1994 to write and eventually record its long-delayed second album. Released on August 15, 1995, Soup was the furthest thing from a sophomore slump: audacious, unique, mature, experimental, with musical density and lyrical heft to spare. “We were open to anything,” Christopher Thorn told The A.V. Club. “We didn’t have to answer to anybody and felt like we could do whatever we wanted. That’s a great way to make art, when you’re not making decisions in fear.” Soup was Blind Melon’s Pet Sounds. It’s Exile On Main St. A dynamic achievement by young musicians determined to create something memorable. No pretension, no self-indulgent filler. It was a watershed career moment. And it tanked. Fucking hard. What went awry? Two decades later, band members still aren’t entirely sure. “The arrangements were kind of unconventional,” Rogers Stevens says. “Things we were listening to at the time weren’t the most accessible.”
“Maybe it was so far from ‘No Rain’ that it just freaked everybody out,” Thorn speculates. “It might have just been too much of a leap.”
In 1995, Rolling Stone was still a kingmaker, capable of buoying or destroying artists’ mojo with a few clicks of the keyboard. And despite canonizing the band on its cover less than two years earlier, the magazine passed its Soup review onto a writer who knew little of Blind Melon outside its hyper-saturated Bee Girl video. He misquoted lyrics, dismissed the album as lightweight and disconnected, and chided the band for deviating from its successful “No Rain” formula. “It was so humbling to read that review. We thought they’d be proud of us for being bold,” admits Thorn. “We were like, ‘Wow, this thing we thought was a masterpiece, you hated it.’ We were so crushed. It was really disheartening.”
“There were reasons why, other than the music, we got beat up a little bit in the press,” Stevens concedes. “Shannon didn’t trust journalists. He was very suspicious of them and they hated him. I’m pretty sure he completely abused that [Rolling Stone] guy one time before the review came out. [Laughs.]” Similar reviews rode the slipstream of the Rolling Stone piece. Album sales were sluggish, and despite the catchiness of Soup’s leadoff single “Galaxie,” then-dominant musical force MTV had little interest in adding the song to its rotation.
To the disappointment of casual fans and record executives alike, Soup was devoid of anything bearing a passing resemblance to “No Rain.” Arguably, Blind Melon’s gutsier move was dropping the Southern-tinged jam-band feel that framed its inaugural release. “We were all writing separately, and the jammy aspects of our sound just evaporated,” Glen Graham explains. From the drunken brass ensemble that kicks off the album, it’s evident Soup is a markedly different trip from the previous go-round. “It starts off,” Thorn says, “and it’s like, ‘We’re in New Orleans. We’re out of our minds. Welcome to our record—strap your shit in.’”
A consonant fusion of alternative, folk, acid rock, and a tinge of Dixieland, Soup was either well ahead of its time or not of any particular time at all. Inspiration to commit to this new direction came courtesy of an instant classic: Radiohead’s freshly released The Bends. (Coincidentally, an album the same Rolling Stone reviewer claimed “falls short” for deviating from the successful “Creep” formula.) Blind Melon felt galvanized by the U.K. quintet’s ability to transcend its debut and strive for something bigger, better, bolder. “Creep” was Radiohead’s “No Rain,” and the lads left it in the dust. To Blind Melon, this was both heartening and exciting.
Recorded at Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway Studio—a purportedly haunted mansion deep in New Orleans’ French Quarter—Soup sidestepped the mid-’90s production techniques that tethered many albums to that era. “I remember an obsession with things being dry,” Thorn says. “‘We can’t have shitty reverb.’ We wanted it to sound timeless.” The band credits veteran producer Andy Wallace for bringing this vision to light; not simply through his mixing and engineering prowess, but his ability to patiently rein members in. “It was like herding cats on drugs,” Thorn describes.
Soup exposes a band at its creative peak: virtuoso musicianship and skilled songwriting paired with that raspy Hoon timbre, one of modern music’s most powerful yet under-appreciated voices. The album rewards multiple listens, its diverse styles converging more with each play. “Walk” and “Mouthful Of Cavities” are haunting acoustic numbers. “Galaxie” and “2x4” combine earworm guitar riffs with innovative structure. “St. Andrew’s Fall” delves into sonic experimentation, shifting from honeyed melodies to full-blown cacophony: a manic descending chromatic line that mimics a jumper’s 20-story plunge to the ground below. Few alternative-rock recordings have benefited from the addition of flute, harmonica, banjo, accordion, mandolin, trumpet, tuba, and kazoo. Yet Soup integrates each instrument with seasoned assuredness, the arrangements never veering into novelty.
A handful of tracks are lyrically playful: “Wilt” spins the yarn of a fellow with nasty breath, while “Skinned” and “Lemonade” are toe-tapping entries doused in cheeky irony. However, the lion’s share of Soup tackles far weightier fare: birth, life, depression, remorse, death, and redemption. The album featured thoughtful, heartfelt ruminations from a 27-year-old locked in the throes of crippling addiction. “Soup was a very personal record for Shannon,” Graham says. “Lyrically, I believe it was sort of his farewell to the world.”
Two months after the album’s release, Hoon was found dead in the band’s tour bus. “I never processed how much pain was in those lyrics until after Shannon passed away,” Thorn says. “He was just telling everybody, ‘Hey man, this is not good. I’m kind of fucked up—I might be going out.’” When larger-than-life frontmen die—as they did in bands like Queen, INXS, and Nirvana—society acts in a predictable way. Ubiquitous media coverage, a spike in sales, and saturated airplay. Blind Melon was the exception. Although band members had zero interest in sales metrics after their friend’s tragic exit, the fact remains even Hoon’s passing couldn’t bring attention to this album. There would be no posthumous “bump.” The video for Soup’s second single, “Toes Across The Floor,” reached MTV a couple of days before Hoon’s death. In lieu of airing it as a tribute to the now-defunct band, the network brushed the clip aside.
Capitol Records followed a similar path, distancing itself from all things Blind Melon in the wake of the news. “After Shannon died, not one person from that record company ever called me to offer their sympathies,” Thorn says. “They didn’t even contribute to the fund we set up for Shannon’s baby daughter, Nico. It was like we disappeared.” Thorn wasn’t entirely blindsided by these actions. Capitol president Hale Milgrim, a devoted supporter of the band, had been replaced by Gary Gersh prior to Soup’s release. Soon afterward, the label ousted several more employees who served on Team Blind Melon. The new regime seemed less invested in the band and its upcoming record, focusing its energies instead on talent acquisition. Capitol postponed Soup’s drop date by several weeks to launch the debut Foo Fighters album.
Blind Melon takes some accountability for the strained relationship. During the Soup recording session, members refused to let a label A&R rep visit to the studio, a move Thorn admits was particularly shortsighted. “Our first A&R guy was Simon Potts, who we loved. We didn’t like the guy who replaced him,” he says. “Unfortunately, these are the people who visit you and then go back to the record company to get everyone excited.” Capitol did not get excited. The label had doubts about Soup’s commercial viability, calling it “very dark.” Particularly songs like “2x4,” which chronicled Hoon’s descent into drug abuse. “The company was like, ‘Hey, we thought you guys were just pot-smoking hippies,’” Thorn says. “‘What happened?’” Without a strong push from Capitol, Soup lacked marketing efforts like a significant radio/TV presence. Hoon’s death further sealed the album’s fate as a non-starter.
Artists pay the price when they change the musical landscape. Seminal 1990s releases like Pearl Jam’s Ten, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and Green Day’s Dookie led to myriad copycat bands, each of which slowly chipped away at what made the original recordings so trailblazing. Although Blind Melon carved out a laudable niche, the band never gave way to copycats. On the surface, this seems like an unfortunate legacy. It is not. Unburdened by next-generation acts watering down its sound, Soup, in its uncategorizable brilliance, stands the test of time as a striking feat of enduring originality. Sometimes a curse can double as its own blessing.
“I would really like people to remember how amazing Shannon was—that would be the most gratifying thing,” Stevens says of Soup’s legacy. “On the surface he could play the clown, but the guy was deep and smart and super talented. And he didn’t get a chance to put all that out there. He had a lot more to offer.”