Music: Re-Evaluating The Singles Soundtrack 30 Years Later

Seattle is known for many things. The Space Needle, Papa Winchester Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Randy Johnson and the most iconic mullet of all-time. But in September of 1992 Matt Dillon starred in a movie about Seattle beneath its surface and the underground movement that would inevitably inspire generations to come. As Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ put the grunge movement In Bloom only to be ‘Outshined’ by Soundgarden’s Bad Motorfinger, Singles focused on life in Seattle in the moment of what’s become the most iconic scene in the history of music. 30 years later, the magnitude of the movement is pertinent to this day and the accompanying soundtrack is an accomplishment and celebration of the alternative. Now, 30 years after the release of the movie, it’s evident just how crucial the film and its soundtrack has become.

The nineties certainly enjoyed making relatable entertainment about mundane routine. Seinfeld was the biggest show on television because of the situational comedy within the characters daily lives. Lisa Kudrow starred in Clockwatchers in 1997, during a time where she was arguably the biggest star on television, where the characters are quite literally just working in an office. In my Letterboxd review, I wrote that “what’s compelling [about Clockwatchers] is how everything is so monotonous that it ends up being a fascinating study on prosaic, everyday activities that we all dread.” It’s there-within that Singles stands out—it’s not about that, rather it uses that particular brand of content as a device for the story about the scene. It’s the story of a movement swelling not from those who were the faces of the movement, but those who experienced the movement in real-time. A group of kids who used the movement to escape the arduousness of their lives. The impact of the film itself is more of a cult-classic than timeless cinematic masterpiece three decades later, but it serves as a time capsule. The original soundtrack released Alice in Chains ‘Would?’ as a lead promotional single, setting the stage for Dirt just weeks after the film’s release. Grunge was in the mainstream, and it was there to stay. The OST featured tracks from that of Mother Love Bone, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Mudhoney and others. Join me as I break down Singles and what makes it an embodiment of the era.

The soundtrack opens with simple dissonance in a Mike Starr bassline, setting the foundation for a subtly heavy song that proceeded. The raw emotion that follows from Jerry Cantrell, mixed in with the harmonization provided by Layne Staley’s vocals, delivers one of the most iconic and heart-wrenching songs of the nineties. The track has the attitude and energy of what made the grunge scene grunge. Make no mistake about it, the genre of grunge isn’t a style of music itself, but a movement delivered from the underground scene. Nirvana, for example, takes a lot more influence from bands like The Clash, while Soundgarden took elements from Iggy and the Stooges, yet it’s the originality within aura they provide. Yet, they all have one distinctly similar influence outside of each other: Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone.

Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were formed directly because of Hunger Strike, a song written as an homage to Andy, and both bands are a derivative of Temple of the Dog. Here we have what ended up becoming the biggest hit on perhaps the biggest grunge album and it’s written about Andy Wood’s heroin overdose and those that may have been judgmental toward it. Judging somebody for their addictions because society deems it taboo, or they just don’t understand the experience is part of what keeps those who are struggling from getting the help that they may require. You can see within the lyrics as well where Cantrell’s struggles were.

“So I made a big mistake, try to see it once my way.” Cantrell’s lyrical message here is to put yourself into the shoes of the narrator and understand why things happened the way they did and without adequate concept, you cannot understand. It’s the same mistake made previously, but it’s the same trip. The numbing of the pain is hard to deny once you’ve felt it and experienced it. The song as it ages though becomes an indictment on the scene in general, as well as its cynics.

There were few bigger bands in the grunge scene than Alice in Chains, but one was a band named Pearl Jam, headed by Eddie Vedder, who performed ‘Breath’ for the OST. The session that it was recorded in was the first with drummer Dave Abbrazzese and produced ‘State of Love and Trust.’ The music was originally an outtake from a demo-solo done by Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard during his tenure in Mother Love Bone. The word is used as an analogy for a new day where you wake up outside and exhale a warm breath within the chilly weather. It symbolizes a new beginning and that we’re given a new beginning every day. It’s motivational, but it doesn’t try to be like most motivational music is. It’s heavier than most motivational tracks and is something you can jam to while still relating to the lyrical content. Its breakdown and bridge is one of Pearl Jam’s best.

In the essence of what made Pearl Jam unapologetically themselves early on, this track is probably that. The layout of the track with Eddie’s full and deep ‘marble mouth’ vocal style, as well as the passion provided by the band. Pearl Jam gets as much as possible out of a simple E-to-D guitar pattern on the guitar as well as an in-and-out fretless bass, complimented by the drums matching the rhythm. There’s a tapped-up harmonic in the bass before Jeff Ament slides up on the bass. It’s nothing innovative, but it’s unique, catchy and fits the style Eddie’s singing well. The marble mouth works from here through Vitalogy in 1994 because it’s Eddie being Eddie. The more concocted style of vocals was his expressionism before it became his own formula to follow. The track is Pearl Jam at their finest. Of course, this plays in the part of the movie where Bridget Fonda asks if her breasts are too small.

The film covers the tediousness of living in one place going through life at a pace that you’re not content with but being too afraid to do anything. From there, the third song on the track takes more of an acoustic, folksy sound. It’s everything that grunge is not and yet it’s perhaps the best performance of arguably the best grunge vocalist, Chris Cornell. The passion he puts into ‘Seasons’ tugs on the heart strings as the somber and melancholy delivery of some of the most relatable lines has its intended effect. “Dreams have never been the answer,” laments Cornell. “And dreams have never made my bed.”

It’s about a man who doesn’t want to go after his dreams because of the risk versus reward, and with that, he’s left behind as the seasons, time more specifically, continue to roll on by. It goes further as by the time he finds the words to articulate what he’s feeling, so much time has gone by that he didn’t even enjoy the few good parts of it, and everything around him is a reminder of the double-edged sword. The open F5 tuning is a little out there, clocking in at FCFCCF, but that combined with Cornell’s evocative baritone voice. Chris Cornell had four-octaves in his range, which most musicians don’t. He excelled in falsetto. But he didn’t use any of it it here, opting for a more natural, soft-sounding tone and ranging up quickly when required amping it up around the three-minute marker and progressively getting higher throughout the track.

This goes back to the earlier point of grunge not being a specific style, because the average person doesn’t think of acoustic rock as grunge, yet there’s certainly elements of it. Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s ‘Footsteps’. and even Cornell’s own ‘Down on the Upside’ with Soundgarden come to mind immediately.

As Paul Westerberg of the Replacements embarked on a solo career, ‘Dyslexic Heart’ was the first of a few tracks to appear from the ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ vocalist. One of the grandfathers of alternative rock, Westerberg was used regularly in the creation of the track listing. Here he is dipping his pen into the proverbial ink of pop, with a catchy song as if it were something out of an eighty’s brat-pack flick. Not only was it a few years too late for society, but it didn’t exactly fit the mood of the film. Singles director Cameron Crowe was only three years removed from trying his hand in the brat-pack genre in Say Anything… with John Cusack. It was in that picture where he used ‘Within Your Reach’ by the Replacements. The working relationship had been established, providing a potential reason that Westerberg collaborated with Cameron Crowe on not one, but two tracks here. It just doesn’t fit. The song is very upbeat, but it’s overproduced and dubs way too many instruments. Not to mention, hand clapping to “nah nah nah nah” is a bit too sanguine compared to the lyrics for this writer’s taste. Not only is it the first swing-and-miss of the soundtrack, but it swings-and-misses like Javier Baez on a curve that bounces two feet in front of the plate.

The fifth track is a cover from Nancy and Ann Wilson of Heart under their side project the Lovemongers. It’s a cover of ‘Battle of Evermore’ from Led Zeppelin’s IV. This goes about as well as you can get from Heart covering a track off arguably the most iconic album in classic rock. It’s not bad, but there’s something missing and it just never reaches that next level. It’s clear that the sisters’ voices compliment each other, but we already knew that seeing as how big Heart had already been in the past. There’s an elegance in their voices, harmonizing as one in a beautiful way. It’s kept simple, which is probably a good thing, it’s just not much to talk home about. I feel like this was a trial-run for their later record as Heart which had that extra oomph.

The sixth track circles back to what I’ve covered ad-nauseum thus far: Mother Love Bone. ‘Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns’ is armed with a pretty E4 acoustic piano that flatters Wood’s low-range Bb4 is utilized to perfection here. There’s obvious influence drawn from the glam rock of the 1980s, but there’s also a lot more innovation here that were elements of grunge later. The combining of two distinct but similar tracks to form one, the drawn-out lower bassline on the bridge, the louder drums later in the track. Going back to what was discussed about the lyrical content in Would?, the song is autobiographical about Andy’s heroin problems. This track is about a dude who must dump a stripper he’d been seeing because he needs money for heroin. It’s lyrically heavy with a lot of euphemisms, but ultimately Wood is wearing the Crown of Thorns because of what he has to do to his Chloe Dancer, making the name of the track self-explanatory. The most heartbreakingly passionate songs are usually autobiographical, and the dissonance provided by the piano allows the heartfelt delivery of the lyrics to come together in a powerful manner. You can see the talent as a musician and songwriter in Andy Wood while understanding his pain just from this one song.

The seventh song on the record is ‘Birth Ritual,’ a Soundgarden studio outtake that didn’t appear on Badmotorfinger. The bass is the most prominent instrument, using a Drop D tuning. From a lyrical perspective, its profound suggestion is that the two certainties in life are birth and death, regardless of who you are or where you come from. But what does it talk about for life in between? That’s been up for debate for years. Tim Commerford, who played with Cornell later in Audioslave, spoke on his songwriting greatness one time. Commerford expressed his thoughts on the song ‘Like a Stone’ asking him what it was actually about. Chris said, “waiting to die.” Commerford said that this sentiment made him re-visit numerous tracks throughout Cornell’s career. Commerford’s lasting thought in that interview was “I thought he was singing about something trivial for fifteen years, but I was wrong. He’s really deep.” I feel like that’s similar here.

‘State of Love and Trust’ became well-known in pop culture after Pearl Jam performed it on their MTV Unplugged in between ‘Oceans’ and ‘Alive.’ But it was originally cut for the Singles OST. The track is weird because it was a project track that was a collaboration between Cameron Crowe, Eddie Vedder and Jeff Ament. Eddie’s said that it’s about being faithful, Ament says it’s what the film itself is about and Crowe has said it’s about instincts. Before doing research for this piece, I’d always speculated that it was about suicide. “And I listen for the voice inside my head,” Vedder sings. “Nothin’, I’ll do this one myself.” It’s about that voice in the back of your mind always telling you that you’re worthless. The idea, in my head, of this track and how it relates to the Seattle grunge scene is that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Washington was consistently at the top of the list for states with highest suicide rates per capita. Washington’s state motto is that it’s “the state of love and trust.” Yet here I am completely wrong about what its intentions were, seemingly there isn’t an obvious intent. That’s what makes a great piece of music, though. Every song means something different to somebody else, but it makes you feel something, and it makes your voice feel heard whether the meaning is correct or not. Great music is timeless and part of that is that it evolves as perspective evolves. What’s different about this song from the sadder songs lyrically on this album is that it’s a more traditionally heavy song. It’s composed in a way that the listener can headbang to. A Pearl Jam classic.

Singles next track is ‘Overblown’ by Seattle’s own Mudhoney. One of the more under the radar grunge bands, this track takes a more punk sound. There’s an emphasis in the song put on the mainstream attention that the scene was starting to garner after Nirvana released Bleach in ’89.  “There was a certain amount of frustration in terms of the changes that had happened locally to shows in the ’80s,” Mudhoney frontman Mark Arm said in an interview. “There was a small group of people, maybe a couple hundred, that went to shows and you maybe didn’t know everyone, but you knew them by sight. And all of a sudden, you’d go to a show and none of those people were around anymore. All you saw was this new group of people who got turned on to local music by MTV or something. It was really weird. So it was just a reaction to that. I was trying to keep it funny and light as well. I wasn’t really going to move out of town.” The band was paid twenty grand to put toward producing the song for the soundtrack. They spent $164 producing the song and split the remainder of the cash amongst the group.

An oeuvre of Paul Westerberg dating back to his time with The Replacements is suicide. In the tenth track of the record, we hear the line “I’m going to sleep and I’m going there alone” in a very much upbeat track titled ‘Waiting For Somebody.’ Westerberg tunes down his usual guitar and sings in a C-chord for this pop-rock anthem. The song is in line with the tone and context of the film’s characters, though, as it’s about four kids trying to find somebody. This was a nice little pop anthem that seems like it could’ve been a hit in that time.

The Singles soundtrack, if anything, is an experience. You can’t have an experience without Jimi Hendrix (okay, that wasn’t a good pun). They use ‘May This Be Love,’ a soft ballad from his first record. Using E and A Major pentatonic, Hendrix’s versatility with a guitar is shown. It’s not quite what you expect when you say “Jimi Hendrix,” but it’s perfect for the mood and tone of the film. Beyond that, you can’t have a movie set in Seattle focused on music without involving the most legendary musician to come out of the city.

The penultimate track features some of the best drums on the OST. The Screaming Trees aren’t necessarily grunge, but they were one of the pioneers in the underground Seattle scene alongside bands such as Melvins. ‘Nearly Lost You’ provides more of a hard-alternative sound. The band performed the track live on NBC for David Letterman in 1992 and the song became their signature for their fleeting moments of mainstream recognition. The snare work is made even better by a terrific bass rumbling across the shredded lead guitar line. It felt huge and doesn’t stop from the first moment it starts. It’s one of the best grunge tracks that very few remember.

Finally, after all my incoherent rambling, we get to the last track of the record with ‘Drown’ by the Smashing Pumpkins. Long before Billy Corgan was booking Nick Aldis as a dominant heavyweight champion, he was using his peculiar voice trying to breakthrough in alternative rock. Though a band from Chicago isn’t grunge, they were the first outside band to see success using elements of grunge in real-time. This slows the pace down in the beginning, using an e-bow and softer rhythm, before breaking away from that at about the 2:30 mark in the track and introducing the additional guitars before fading them back out after the bridge. Gish had just come out, yet they were beyond that at this point. This runs straight into the direction of Siamese Dream. There’s obvious inspiration drawn from psychedelic rock of the 1960s, think Jefferson Airplane. A long, but excellent track.

The soundtrack is the definitive Seattle music album, one of the richest scenes in music history. Beyond that, it’s a deep look into the lives of everyday folks in Seattle during the early 1990s. The soundtrack introduced millions to what was about to take over the world of music. While it was starting to gain steam, it was Singles that gave grunge that final push toward true prominence. A later anniversary special edition released additional tracks, such as the songs from Citizen Dick! For those who haven’t seen the film, Citizen Dick is a fictionalized version of Pearl Jam with the members of Pearl Jam.

Singles is on the shortlist of best movie soundtracks of the ‘90s for me, alongside soundtracks such as the one Jon Bon Jovi cut for Young Guns II and the soundtrack for Forrest Gump.

You can follow me on Twitter @TheJameus.
You can see me every other Monday on We Talk Indies with Ashley Nova and Tiffany Anne.

More From This Author