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Album Review: 'Chris Cornell' by Chris Cornell

Marcel Thee

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, December 7, 2018  /  10:11 am
Album Review: 'Chris Cornell' by Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell and Soundgarden Perform at the Sound Academy on January 25, 2013 in Toronto. ( Patterson Photos/File)

Musician Chris Cornell died in a suicide in May last year, sending waves of grief and shock throughout the music world.

Though he often sang about the darker side of life, Cornell seemed like the one frontman in the Seattle scene that had a clear view of his grimmer impulses even as they tried to pull him in.

Lest the sad circumstances become romanticized as it has for many of his peers — Kurt Cobain’s being the epitome of that conjecture — the focus should be on how immensely talented, productive and courageous Cornell was beyond his initial tag as a grunge god of sorts.

A new, expansive collection titled Chris Cornell celebrates his rich musical legacy and comes in either four CDs or seven LPs, totaling 64 songs.

As is the case with these types of box sets, different fans will feel differently about the track-list, but Chris Cornell does a fair job in summing up the peaks and variety of Cornell’s career in all its uniqueness. Longtime producer Brendan O’Brien produced the collection, while Pearl Jam bass player Jeff Ament provided the artwork.

Having begun as a drummer for Seattle sound godfathers Soundgarden, Cornell moved onto becoming its lead singer, guitar player and main songwriter — bringing that band into the rock stratosphere in the early 90s alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains.

Upon the band’s demise in 1997, Cornell went on with a solo career that touched on everything from psychedelic pop to RnB. Not all these were as successful as Soundgarden, but it showed how courageous Cornell was in trying on various musical hats (his electro 2009 RnB album Scream was produced by hip-hop mega-producer Timbaland and received a critical beating).

He also led Audioslave, a band made up of the former instrumental section of rap-rock pioneers Rage Against The Machine. This band would also be massively successful, though more so commercially than critically.

Somewhere along the way, Cornell had time to explore collaborations, some more popular than others, such as Temple of the Dog with members of Pearl Jam in 1990 (to celebrate the life of Andy Wood, a close friend and Seattle luminary who led the band Mother Love Bone and died from heroin overdose that same year).

Cornell’s voice was arguably his most immediately distinguishable characteristic; one that even casual or non-fans may recognize even without exactly knowing who it is.

Throughout Chris Cornell, this voice soars. It is clear even from the earliest entries here — Soundgarden’s first few singles include “Hunted Down”, “Kingdom of Come” and “Flower” — that even as a young man, Cornell already had a knack for dynamic phrasing and building momentum through his voice.

Though Soundgarden always benefitted from the unique punkish-metal musicality of its other members, it is difficult to imagine these tracks soaring as much as they do had guitar player Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron and original bassist Hiro Yamamoto (and later Ben Shepherd) not had Cornell’s voice leading the attack.

Even before he became the band’s primary songwriter during its commercial heyday, Cornell was already carrying a lot of emotional heft.

On Temple of the Dog tracks, Cornell (alongside Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder) arguably originates the emotive mumbling that later became a template for alternative rock wannabees.

It is easy to dismiss these days, but the way the Wood tributes in “Say Hello 2 Heaven” and “Going Hungry” build momentum through the vocals is undeniable — especially as the songs, as iconic as they are today, only hinted at the melodic prowess that its creators would later have as they reached mainstream popularity.

By the time that popularity arrived, Cornell was a ready rockstar amongst his peers who were less-enthused about the expected frontman tendencies that they railed against.

While Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were merely a much cooler version of their audience, Cornell still imbued the rock god elements of classic rock acts, both in image and voice.

His wails were titanic and seemingly an extension of his early 90s persona; shirtless, with long-hair spinning and blowing against the wind. Early huge hits such as “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage” were filled with kinetic singing.

The first part of this collection embraces this most well-known trajectory in Cornell’s career, following him as he creates massive 90s hits such as “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman”, and as Soundgarden winds down, infusing more of Cornell’s singer-songwriter tendencies (and psychedelic pop elements) through “Burden In My Hand” and “Dusty”.

As the collection moves onto its second section, Cornell has already established his music and voice. And while the Audioslave and solo years shows a contented sense of musicality that Soundgarden benefitted from not having, they showcase just how versatile Cornell was in adapting his voice to different genres without losing its prowess.

Audioslave was far more straightforward in its “rock” than Soundgarden ever was, and again — while the musicians in the band certainly were no slouches — Cornell’s voice and sense of melody was the key factor in making them as immediately captivating as they were. Take the radio-readiness of “Be Yourself” and “Like A Stone” as proof.

The collection also puts Cornell’s solo career in hindsight, with songs from his solo record (especially his debut “Euphoria Morning”) and even the electro-pop flourish of “Scream” providing a sense of logic and balance.

Despite their presentation feeling as though it did not benefit Cornell’s songwriting, tracks such as “Long Gone” and “Can’t Change Me” brim with catchy hooks outside the expectations of ardent Soundgarden fans.

The rest of the collection features a variety of one-off collaborations as well as live and alternate versions of tracks. Some already made waves on the internet when they were released, including covers of songs by Black Sabbath, Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”, Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Baby (Land of the New Rising Sun)”, John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”. Some of these were originally released on the live album Songbook in 2011.

Bookended by a variety of live recordings and some of Cornell’s final recordings, Chris Cornell doesn’t offer much in the way of unreleased goodies — save the eerie gospel track “When Bad Does Good” — and as such may not feel like a compulsory piece.

It is missing some elements, namely the humor in some of his writing, but it brings together a good balance of its namesake’s colorful career, drawing a strong line through all of these songs and showing that, despite the different packaging it comes in, Cornell’s musicality and voice were an undeniable force.