“Lonely and weary from this troubled task of trying…” Chris Cornell, RIP

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.

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The Listening Post: January 2016

  • Higher TruthChris Cornell. The last time we heard from Chris Cornell the Solo Artist was 2009’s Scream. It took him six years, a reunion with the mighty Soundgarden, and a solo acoustic tour, to recover from that steaming mess. Scream, a train wreck collaboration with Timbaland that buried Cornell’s songs under a mountain of electronic dance music, was such an embarrassing fiasco it would have killed the career of a less established star. It took 2012’s excellent Soundgarden reunion album King Animal to gain back Cornell’s credibility. Fans didn’t shrug off Scream as a misstep in a long career; it was almost universally hated. This just makes Higher Truth that much sweeter. Cornell has followed up what is certainly one of the worst albums ever released by a major artist with the best album of his solo career. cornellInspired by his recent solo tours, Cornell strips down the production on Higher Truth to focus on the subtler, more acoustic side of his sound. That’s not to say that this is an acoustic singer/songwriter album. There’s no shortage of indications about who Cornell really is on the album, and he’s not Jack Johnson or James Taylor. He’s the howling banshee lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave, two of the heaviest rock bands of all time, whose voice could peel the paint off your walls. Taken as a whole, Higher Truth sounds like a serious rock band playing a mostly acoustic set before the big show starts (there are electric instruments amid the mandolins here: check out the buzzsaw guitar solo on the first single, “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart”). There are many ballads (“Dead Wishes”, “Before We Disappear”, “Through the Window”, “Let Your Eyes Wander”) but there are also plenty of songs that blend balladry with the intensity of heavier rock, held in check by the acoustic presentation (“Murderer Of Blue Skies”, “Higher Truth”, “Circling”) . There’s even a song (“Our Time In The Universe”) that successfully blends rock and electronic dance music, the synthesis Cornell failed to create on Scream, by sticking to conventional rock instruments and melodies and attaching them to a beat and chorus that wouldn’t sound out of place in the world of strobe lights, DJs, and Ecstasy (as a bonus track there’s a more straightforward rock mix of this track, as well as three other songs that maintain the quality and sound of the main album). This variety has the benefit of keeping the album fresh. Too many acoustic albums are sleepy affairs, as if the electric guitar was meant for rock and the acoustic was meant for slow, confessional ballads. Cornell reminds the listener that this is not the case: acoustic instruments can rock, too.
    Grade: A
  • The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12: The Best of The Cutting Edge, 1965-66Bob Dylan. Most bands are lucky if they have an album’s worth of first-rate outtakes collecting dust in some studio archive. There’s usually a very good reason the songs that don’t make an album are left unheard. Traditionally, the best of them have been released as the flip sides of singles and sometimes when there is enough stuff that’s really good it gets released in some sort of rarities package. For years the gold standard of this was the Who’s Odds And Sods, a 1974 collection of unreleased songs that contained real Who classics like “Long Live Rock”, “Naked Eye”, and “Pure and Easy” alongside odd treasures like “Now I’m A Farmer”, the early pass at Tommy of “Glow Girl”, and Townshend’s anti-smoking song for the American Cancer Society, “Little Billy”. But rarities collections are invariably hit-or-miss affairs, at least until Bob Dylan unleashed The Bootleg Series on an unsuspecting world. dylanThere are some previously unreleased songs on the twelve (and counting) packages, but most of the tracks are alternate or live versions of songs that have been previously released. All too often, alternate versions are a letdown: a slightly different mix, a poorly recorded demo. But this is Bob Dylan and his alternates are usually radically different takes on familiar songs. Take, for example, the version of “Visions of Johanna” on The Best of the Cutting Edge. The Blonde On Blonde version is a stately, haunting ballad dripping with some of Dylan’s best wordplay. A previous package (Vol. 4: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert) featured a beautiful, live acoustic version that downplayed the music and highlighted the words. The version here (a rehearsal) is a rollicking, fast-tempo rocker so unlike the other versions that it may as well be a different song. Or the version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that sounds like it could be played by the house band at a Mexican cantina, tying the music to the opening line about being lost in Juarez in the rain when it’s Easter time, too. Or the solo acoustic version of Bringing It All Back Home‘s electric “She Belongs To Me.” Every one of the songs here is noticeably different than the previously released versions, and every one is a gem. One of the interesting things about it is how many of the songs sound like kissing cousins of “Like A Rolling Stone”, particularly the songs recorded after Highway 61 Revisited. Both the music and the phrasing of lyrics, in many cases, bear a strong resemblance to the most famous of all Dylan songs. The final versions are, of course, very different, but in these early workouts and rehearsals, the music had really not yet finished its journey. Some of these songs are early versions with incomplete, or different lyrics (for example, Dylan has yet to add the word “just” to the song “Just Like A Woman”, and “Tombstone Blues” has a slightly different chorus); some are demos (there’s an abbreviated but wonderful piano demo of “Desolation Row” as well as a full band version of what became the acoustic conclusion to Highway 61). The Bootleg Series has been truly extraordinary, and there are still depths to be explored. The quality of the material stands on its own, revealing just how restless and creative Dylan was at every stage of his career, and this latest collection culls material from the zenith of his musical output, when Dylan was burning across the cultural landscape and leaving a scorched earth in his wake. Twelve illuminating and musically valid compilations of Dylan outtakes later, it’s almost possible to construct an alternate history of Dylan’s entire career. There are still gaps, mainly from about 1973 to the mid-80s, although 1975’s Rolling Thunder tour has a package and a few songs from this era appear on Vol. 2 and Vol. 3, but rumors abound that the next package will begin to address this with outtakes from the Blood on the Tracks/Desire era. Amazingly, the alternate history is nearly as interesting as the real one. Dylan may be the only musician in the world to be able to claim that.
    Grade: A
  • Song ReaderVarious Artists. Rock music has always had its eccentrics and musical iconoclasts. Bob Dylan is one, as is Neil Young. In recent years, Jack White has garnered a reputation as a musical maverick who does what he wants with little regard for convention. Add to this Beck, who emerged in the 1990s with an oddball folk rap song and who has proceeded to hopscotch his way across the musical landscape, following his whims and his muse wherever they take him. In 2012 word got out that Beck was going to release a new album, which he did. Being a musical eccentric, Beck didn’t release Song Reader in any physical form meant for listening. It was not released as an LP, a CD, or in any digital format. Beck released his album as sheet music. beckIt was an odd stroke of genius. YouTube became the home for the album, as thousands of people posted videos of themselves performing new Beck songs. The record industry being what it is, a physical release was inevitable, and in 2014, Song Reader was released, featuring twenty different artists performing the songs in their own style. Categorically, this is a Beck album, although only one song (“Heaven’s Ladder”) is actually performed by the songwriter. Stylistically it’s all over the map with artists as diverse as Laura Marling, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, Norah Jones, David Johansen, Jack White, Jack Black, Sparks, Loudon Wainwright, soul singer Swamp Dogg, and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy all taking their turn interpreting the songs Beck wrote. This is not a tribute album, one of those well-meaning but usually artistically bankrupt compilations where artists do soundalike versions of a performer’s best-loved songs. Because there was no Beck template outside of notes on a page, the artists here were able to make the songs their own, and it shows. Norah Jones’s “Just Noise” is a wonderful, sweeping shuffle. Jack White puts his standard guitar crunch on “I’m Down” and it sounds like a track from one of his solo albums. Jack Black, no great musical talent, tackles the humorous “We All Wear Cloaks” like a drunken Tom Waits. Marc Ribot does an old-fashioned jazz turn on “The Last Polka.” Colombian star Juanes provides a Spanish language version of “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard”. Perhaps the most affecting song here is Swamp Dogg’s beautiful version of “America, Here’s My Boy”, the heartbreaking, angry, and bitter tale of a father whose son has died in combat. The diversity of sound and feel on the album makes it hard to imagine that the songs are all the product of one man, and that works in the album’s favor. It allows the listener to hear Beck with fresh ears, and realize just how talented the man behind the curtain really is.
    Grade: B+