In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Some of our favorite songs with “year” in the title.
Soundgarden, “Room A Thousand Years Wide” (1991)
When Soundgarden gathered in early 1991 to record Badmotofinger, the group’s third album, the idea of a new alternative-rock “grunge” craze sweeping the nation seemed ludicrous—like the idea of Guns N’ Roses becoming an avatar of hard rock’s bloated past, probably. (Ironically enough, Use Your Illusion I and II ended up coming out the week before Nevermind, in September of that year.) Prior to the emergence of the “Seattle Sound,” which first picked up mainstream steam after British journalist Everett True wrote a glowing front-page NME story of the regional music scene in 1989—the same year as the band’s previous album, Louder Than Love—Soundgarden had been wedged awkwardly into ”metal” and “hard rock” categories in the mind of its label. Thankfully, the burgeoning notoriety of the scene that spawned the group, along with the band’s own role in shaping the very “grunge” sound that defined it, quickly aligned it with like-minded contemporaries, and started Soundgarden down the road to widespread commercial acceptance on its own terms.
That subsequent success began with Badmotorfinger, and one of the tracks that best represented the sound of the group’s future was “Room A Thousand Years Wide.” For the first half of the band’s history, there were few songs that found their way to a Soundgarden album that weren’t shaped at least in part by lead singer Chris Cornell. He had a hand in the vast majority of the music writing, and almost singlehandedly composed the lyrics to the group’s initial catalogue. But the addition of new bassist Ben Shepherd, who joined in April 1990, gave the group new inspiration and a renewed creative process, one that allowed for a broader swath of input and collaboration from the various members. Shepherd himself contributed the music and lyrics to the album’s “Somewhere,” but “Room A Thousand Years Wide” was a rare team-up between Kim Thayil and drummer Matt Cameron, the latter composing the music and the former the lyrics. (An early version was initially released as a single for Sub Pop in 1990, but was re-recorded for the album.)
Musically, the song is right in Soundgarden’s sweet spot, a heavy, sludgy riff wedded to a lumbering rhythm that somehow feels slow and fast at the same time. Vocally, it’s relatively sparse—only a couple of minimal verses that segue into a refrain comprised of only three words: “Tomorrow begets tomorrow.” It traffics in the lyrical ambiguity that characterizes so much of the band’s music, with oblique references to “one who loved what love denied.” Thayil has described it as being “more about experience in general,” which is the kind of explanation you give when you don’t really want to talk about what you’re written. For Soundgarden’s next two records before breaking up late in the decade, this kind of collaboration became the norm in the group, even as creative differences slowly contributed to its dissolution. But “Room A Thousand Years Wide” is what Soundgarden does best: Ambitious hard rock with the head of a music geek and the heart of a headbanger.