The grunge-rock group Mother Love Bone had churned out an EP and an album before their lead singer, Andrew Wood, died of a heroin overdose in 1990. Former roommate Chris Cornell, who fronted Soundgarden, approached Mother Love Bone members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament on working together. They also recruited Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and newbies Mike McCready on guitar and Eddie Vedder for background vocals.
This collective produced only one album before Cornell and Cameron returned to Soundgarden. In the fall of 1991, they reached its widest audience yet with their double-platinum breakthrough, Badmotorfinger, and “helped set the stage for Soundgarden’s mainstream breakthrough with Superunknown” SH in 1994. Meanwhile, the rest of Temple of the Dog formed Pearl Jam and their 1991 debut Ten became one of the biggest albums of the decade and now consistently lands in lists of the best albums of all time. The success of those bands cast a spotlight on Temple of the Dog and in 1992, more than a year after its initial release, the album found an audience to the tune of a top five, million-selling album.
The album has largely been seen as a tribute to Wood, but only Reach Down and Say Hello 2 Heaven were specifically written with him in mind. However, the album and band title also derived from Wood, specifically the lyrics in the Mother Love Bone song “Man of Golden Words” – “seems I’ve been living in the temple of the dog.” The rest of the material originated from songs Cornell was working on before Wood’s death. WK and then developed out of the new collective’s “natural chemistry.” SH It came together quickly; they only took 15 days during November and December of 1990 to record the album. WK Gossard described it as a “non-pressure filled” situation and “the easiest and most beautiful record that we’ve ever been involved with.” WK
“As a result, there’s a very loose, jam-oriented feel to much of the album, and while it definitely meanders at times, the result is a more immediate emotional impact. The album’s strength is its mournful, elegiac ballads, but thanks to the band’s spontaneous creative energy and appropriately warm sound, it’s permeated by a definite, life-affirming aura.” SHEntertainment Weekly’s David Brown said, “maybe because the musicians avoid the often-labored anthems they play with their own bands, the songs sound relaxed and airy without losing any of the crunch or drive of the best arena rock.” WK
“Keeping in mind that Soundgarden’s previous album was the overblown metallic miasma of Louder Than Love, the accessibly warm, relatively clean sound of Temple of the Dog is somewhat shocking, and its mellower moments are minor revelations in terms of Cornell’s songwriting abilities.” SH This album also offered “the first glimpse of Chris Cornell’s more straightforward, classic rock-influenced side.” SH “It isn’t just the band, either – he displays more emotional range than ever before, and his melodies and song structures are (for the most part) pure, vintage hard rock. In fact, it’s almost as though he's trying to write in the style of Mother Love Bone.” SH
The album also understandably “sounds like a bridge between Mother Love Bone’s theatrical ‘70s-rock updates and Pearl Jam’s hard-rocking seriousness. What is surprising, though, is that Cornell is the dominant composer, writing the music on seven of the ten tracks (and lyrics on all).” SH
One of those songs, Hunger Strike, became a duet between Cornell and Vedder, giving Vedder his first lead vocal work in a recording studio. WK The song was a natural first choice to plug the album that featured the now well-known groups. Rolling Stone magazine’s David Fricke said that for that song and “Reach Down”, “Temple of the Dog deserves immortality; those songs are proof that the angst that defined Seattle rock in the 1990s was not cheap sentiment.” WK
Fricke also points out “the irony of an album, made in great sadness, kick-starting the last great pop mutiny of the twentieth century.” WK “Consider the adage that funerals are more for the living than the dead; Temple of the Dog shows Wood's associates working through their grief and finding the strength to move on.” SH