Rusty Cage was the last single from Soundgarden’s third album Badmotorfinger, three years before the release of their breakout album Superunknown (Spoonman, Black Hole Sun). With its riff-heavy rock, unorthodox tuning—the lead guitar having its E-string tuned down to a B—and unusual 19/8 meter, Rusty Cage shows off much of the band’s strengths and is one of their most popular songs.
1. The phrasing of the first section after the intro. While the guitar repeats itself in each 4/4 bar, the vocals follow a much longer phrasing scheme that seems incidental to everything behind it, sounding almost as if it only synchronizes with the backing music by chance.
2. The lyrical emphasis in the chorus. The vocals—again, staggered with the guitar—syncopate the word “break,” punctuated with a crash of the cymbal on the downbeat of the guitar. Just before the end of the phrase, the guitar breaks, while the bass backs the vocals on the word “cage,” with the drums briefly keeping time, following a finishing riff from the guitar cuing the last vocals before the two pick up into the next verse.
3. The inconsistent meter in the second section. The music at this point doesn’t keep precisely to 4/4, where the background’s phrasing is still distinct from the vocalist’s. The section ends similarly to the last one, where the vocalist sings his last word in unison with the downbeat in the guitar.
4. The unexpected third section. After what sounds like the last note in the song, the guitar comes back in suddenly, and again, starting a new section, with a phrase that seems absent of any particular structure, until the next phrase where the band continues the song in a 19/8 meter. The heavy guitar-work in this section gives the lyrics a great deal more weight, making each word sound laboured as the band seems to struggle to even finish each phrase, but at the same time, they do it seamlessly, and keep it consistent as the vocalist goes into one last chorus, before the song ends in a slow finish.
5. The ending. The re-entrance of the effects used in the intro give the ending the same empty, floating timbre that the song begins with, making the song feel well-rounded with the same calmness with which it starts.
Johnny Cash puts a distinct country spin on his version, winning him the 1998 Grammy for Best Male Vocal Performance, and exposing the song to an entirely new audience, while preserving enough of the song’s original feel to not alienate its original fan base.
1. The simpler, country-sounding riff that replaces the more rhythmically disorienting original one. This creates a lot more stability between the guitar and the vocals, where the two have a more agreeing phrasing structure. The acoustic arrangement also has perfect balance between the guitar and vocals, where the accompaniment doesn’t overpower the much-more subdued vocals that Cash uses in his version.
2. The bass drum that comes in at the beginning of the second verse. This is where the song really hits its stride. The constant percussion coupled with the additional harmony in the guitar gives the song direction, building much more towards the end and giving a heavier impact to the following chorus, which itself, hasn’t been changed.
3. The inclusion of a distinct ending section. Cash doesn’t necessarily copy the original song, but keeps the same spirit by changing a lot of the elements from the beginning. Most notably, the section has a much fuller texture, with a full band—electric guitar, bass and full drums. Like in the original it abandons the guitar-work used in the beginning for a heavier riff, and a deeper impact.
Both versions are excellent songs, and it’s difficult to argue that either one is better than the other, other than the obvious difference in appeal due to the very contrasting genres.