When I first heard Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” it was before I knew who Chris Cornell was (though I’d heard of, but never heard, Soundgarden). I also didn’t know who Eddie Vedder or Pearl Jam was, as they were still many months away from releasing their first album. As far as I was concerned, Temple of the Dog was some new band. I was suitably impressed, remarking to a friend, “This band has two of the best singers I’ve ever heard.” I didn’t hear the song again for nearly a year, when the record company finally realized, in the wake of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten that it was failing to promote what was, essentially, a “grunge” supergroup.
Since then, Chris Cornell has always been there, the most powerful voice from a scene that included singers as visceral and exciting as Vedder and Mark Lanegan. His range was close to four octaves, and when he hit those higher registers he could strip the paint off your car.
In Soundgarden, Cornell brought out the heavy. Soundgarden’s stated intention was to be “Black Sabbath, minus the parts that suck”, and at first they were unsure of what that meant. Their early material is brutally heavy, crashing chords, searing leads, and Cornell’s glass-shattering wail riding on top. It was the songs he wrote for Temple of the Dog that showed the first indications of maturity. While “Hunger Strike” and “Wooden Jesus” were originally written for Soundgarden, Cornell held them back because they weren’t the right fit for the band. Yes, they were hard rock, but the lyrics were more personal, the melodies more refined, the instrumentation more diverse. The experience of working on these songs, and collaborating with three-fifths of Pearl Jam, was instructive and Cornell took the lessons back to Soundgarden. There’s an enormous leap of songwriting skill between 1990’s skull-crushing Louder Than Love and 1991’s still bruising but more eclectic Badmotorfinger. The latter wasn’t short of pummeling guitar on tracks like “Rusty Cage”, “Outshined”, and, especially, “Jesus Christ Pose”, but it was leavened with slower, denser songs like “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”, which contained elements associated with genres like psychedelia.
That songwriting leap, and Cornell was not the only writer in the band though he was the most dominant, was matched in the years between Badmotorfinger and Soundgarden’s breakthrough album, Superunknown. In the summer of 1994, “Black Hole Sun” was ubiquitous, a magnificent combination of Cornell’s soaring vocals and swirling textures unlike any heard in rock or metal at that time, or since. It sounded like nothing else before it, and was miles apart from what was being played on the radio. The video, a surreal and disturbing glimpse of suburbia that made judicious use of the then fairly recent technology of morphing, was a breakout on MTV in the waning days of music on that channel. Soundgarden were suddenly alternative rock superstars, held in the same light as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Smashing Pumpkins, but they were always different. “Black Hole Sun” won the MTV Video Award for Best Metal Video, prompting guitarist Kim Thayil to say in their acceptance, “I thought we were ‘grunge’.” But truthfully, no label really fit. Their music was intricate and challenging, with oddball tunings and time signatures that were far removed from conventional rock music (one of their most famous songs, “Spoonman” alternates between standard rock 4/4 time and 7/4 time; “Limo Wreck” is in 15/8 time).
The band broke up after one more album, Down On The Upside, and Cornell went solo with 1999’s Euphoria Mourning, a grab-bag of styles that proved Cornell could sing anything from acoustic ballads (“Preaching the End of the World”, “Sweet Euphoria”) to sludgy hard rock (“Mission”) to alternative (“Can’t Change Me”, “Pillow Of Your Bones”). He was even adept at R&B; “When I’m Down” is a song that in a different life could have been a blues standard or, with only a slightly modified arrangement, sung by Frank Sinatra. On “Wave Goodbye”, his tribute to his late friend Jeff Buckley (another virtuoso singer with a multi-octave voice), Cornell’s voice drips with pathos and heartbreak until the bridge when he hits his upper register and does the most spot-on imitation of Buckley imaginable. For those few seconds, Cornell has brought his friend back to life, and the effect is both devastating and thrilling.
In the years since Cornell has released solo albums, broke out his heavy rock chops as the lead singer for Audioslave, reunited with both Soundgarden (for 2012’s excellent King Animal) and Temple of the Dog, and done solo acoustic tours. With the exception of one serious misstep, the beats-heavy techno pop album Scream, his career has been one of consistently high quality. Even his Casino Royale song, “You Know My Name”, was the best James Bond theme since “Live And Let Die”.
As he got older, his songwriting only got better. Higher Truth, his last solo album…unfortunately…was also his best, a stripped down, largely acoustic collection of songs that sounded like a gifted writer just hitting his prime. While his voice may have lost a few notes off the high end, he remained one of the most versatile and gifted vocalists rock music has ever produced. The fact that he could marry that voice to smart, sophisticated rock songs that never sacrificed an intensity best described as pulverizing, made Chris Cornell a rare and unusual talent.
In the end, the gifts he had and the adulation he received as one of the most successful musicians of the past thirty years were simply not enough. The demons that haunted him, that he tried to exorcise through his lyrics and his electrifying performances, convinced him that his troubles were permanent and that they required a permanent solution. It was a tragic and heartbreakingly sad end for a truly gifted man.