(CNN) -- "I only ever really wanted a break/I've been away for too long," Chris Cornell sings on the new Soundgarden album, "King Animal," out November 13. It's the band's first all-new album since 1996's "Down On the Upside" and its breakup in 1997, so the lyric feels more like a status report.
"Is it a statement?" Cornell asked with a laugh. "Or is it more of a coincidence? Probably more of a coincidence. But it does seem obvious, doesn't it?"
Although Nirvana imploded with Kurt Cobain's death in 1994 and Pearl Jam kept trucking through the 2000s -- celebrating its 20th anniversary last year -- Soundgarden predates both grunge pioneers, even though the band found mainstream popularity only in those bands' wake, hitting a commercial peak in 1994 with the album "Superunknown."
"We formed in 1984, eight years before the world knew what Seattle was," Cornell said. "I'm just waiting for the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame to call up and say, 'Here's your induction.' We can do it for the 30th anniversary, I suppose."
Soundgarden's breakup wasn't anything unusual, Cornell said. No one died; no one stole someone's wife. "No one lost an arm," he said. "It was just time for a break."
Now, after he's explored a different avenue of music with his three solo albums, some Temple of the Dog reunions and Audioslave, the revamped Soundgarden has a new focus, aided by Cornell's sobriety. (He went into rehab after Audioslave's first tour.)
Reminded of a post-Soundgarden party where he was spotted double-fisting champagne bottles, the singer laughed. "Not just one. I needed more than one."
There is one lyrical reference to Soundgarden's time away from the rock arena, but you won't find any other explicit mentions of the band's breakup or of bygone fame on "King Animal," which Cornell said would be "inappropriate."
"If this were an Eminem record, he would rap about what it all means, what he thinks about the last record, what he's doing now, and we don't do that," Cornell said. "That's a different culture, to talk about you and then you talk about you some more and then when you're done, how you're selling so many records. I get that, but it's a little strange."
Even though the rock world has changed since the '90s, Cornell says nothing has changed for Soundgarden during the band's time away, which ended in 2010 with some studio sessions, a compilation album ("Telephantasm") and, most recently, a song on "The Avengers" soundtrack ("Live to Rise").
"I guess if anything, we've reverted back to the way we operated as an indie band," Cornell said. "We acted like free agents. And we can do that now, like we did then, because the music business has changed so much."
Lamenting the loss of importance of music videos and rock radio play, Cornell acknowledged that it wouldn't be quite so easy for a new band to just put out an album and expect any fanfare. Then again, when Soundgarden started out as an indie band -- before becoming the first grunge group to sign to a major label, one year before Nirvana did -- success was based on "touring in a van and playing little clubs all over the U.S., Canada and Europe, again and again." (It's a fact that may be acknowledged on the track "Been Away Too Long": "You can walk a million miles and get nowhere.")
"It wouldn't be the same environment if we were just starting out now," Cornell said. "We're an established, well-known band and pioneers of a benchmark cultural shift in rock and pop music, so we have that (in our favor). But all the differences with video play and rock radio networks shrinking keeps you honest, and in a sense, it's healthier and better for fans."
More than ever, Cornell said, Soundgarden wanted to make an album that was consistent with the aesthetic values he developed from listening to bands as a teenager.
"When I was 16 years old and somebody I trusted recommended an album, I would have to go and find it," he recalled. "And oftentimes, those albums weren't easy to find. You might search for a year for it, and then you might have to save up to buy it. And then, if I took it home and didn't love it on the first listen, I would listen to it again and again, because I wanted to like it. I put considerable energy into it."
Likewise, "King Animal" can mean different things to different people on subsequent listens. "It becomes your projection," Cornell said. "Your life is an opera, and this can be the soundtrack of your life."
Listen to "King Animal" after Superstorm Sandy in New York, for instance, and someone might sense a storm raging in Cornell's wailings and the band's arrangements and complicated time signatures, how the mood darkens and saddens as each song progresses, drawing the listener deeper into tracks such as "Bones of Birds," the ode to nature "Taree," the water-logged "Rowing" and the comfort-seeking "Black Saturday" ("I was thirsty, and you gave me water/I was crying, I remember you gave me your shoulder").
Cornell offers minimal explanation for these songs, because he wants fans to come up with their own meanings.
"If I write a song and put it out there, it's not mine anymore," he said. "It takes on a life of its own, and when you listen to it, it becomes your song. And over the course of generations, those meanings will change. I might have created it, but I have no control over how it evolves. But without being able to define what each fan wants, we have to look at it as, Do we like this? We have to please each other, because if we like it, Soundgarden fans will love it. And I think the hardcore fans are going to feel like we brought it. I'm more confident of that now than with any other album."