Why can’t we pull this together? In defense of Chris Cornell’s solo career
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Few artists who have possessed as much credibility as Chris Cornell have worked so actively to blow it all. As the frontman of Soundgarden, Cornell was part of the second wave of signings to the venerable punk label SST Records, and the band managed to climb to grunge-era mainstream success without compromising the heavy-as-fuck riffs and songwriting that helped it stand out from its Seattle-scene contemporaries. By the time the band packed it in in 1997, it was capable of co-headlining Lollapalooza and experimenting with new sounds, all the while continuing to make music on its own terms. With that résumé, Cornell might be regarded as one of the cool uncles of contemporary indie rock, a Mark Lanegan- or Thurston Moore-like figure—if it wasn’t for his post-Soundgarden output. Before Cornell plays a catalogue-revisiting solo acoustic show at the Pabst Theater Saturday, April 23, The A.V. Club took a second look at the man’s much-maligned post-1997 output to see if it deserves its embarrassingly bad reputation.
Cornell’s first solo album, released in 1999, isn’t so much maligned as it’s forgotten. Which is a shame, as it’s a fairly outstanding piece of Jeff Buckley-influenced, vocally acrobatic alt-rock. It spawned one minor hit (“Can’t Change Me,” which was also nominated for a Grammy) and what may be the finest ballad of Cornell’s career, “Preaching The End Of The World.” The latter track, strangely, proved itself highly influential in other media, inspiring both Lorene Scafaria’s forthcoming film Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World and Tiffanie DeBartolo’s 2002 novel, God-Shaped Hole, which concerns a woman who falls in love with a man who uses the song’s chorus in his personal ad. How many movies and novels do you think Eddie Vedder’s upcoming ukelele album is going to inspire?
Highlight: Epic album-closer “Steel Rain,” which features Cornell shredding his vocal cords while belting out the song’s title repeatedly.
To be certain, there are some embarrassing moments in the seven-year history of Audioslave, Cornell’s seemingly mercenary collaboration with the instrument-playing members of Rage Against The Machine. The band’s name is terrible! Why not just call it “RageGarden”? And check out Cornell’s frog-in-throat “rapping” on live versions of RATM staples like “Killing In The Name” and “Sleep Now In The Fire.” But stop harping on that, and revisit the band’s studio albums, now removed from the disappointment that it was neither the second coming of Soundgarden or RATM. The albums may not be classics—there’s some filler there, sure—but they’re also way better than they got credit for at the time. It’s uncool to admit, but there are a few songs on each of the band’s three albums that are on par with Cornell’s work with Soundgarden—check out 2006’s “Wide Awake”, for example, which fulfills the promise of having one of the ’90s great rock singers front one of the the ’90s great rock bands.
Highlight: 2005’s “#1 Zero,” a slow-burner that could have come right off of Superunknown—if Soundgarden’s Ben Shepherd was a bassist on caliber with Audioslave’s Tim Commerford.
Carry On, Cornell’s first solo release following his departure from Audioslave, featured a slowed-down, funk-free take on “Billie Jean,” along with the Casino Royale theme “You Know My Name.” Both were poorly received, but his take on “Billie Jean” is interesting, at least—who’d have thought to reinterpret that particular Michael Jackson song as a power ballad? “You Know My Name,” meanwhile, is moody and vaguely ominous, and one of the better James Bond themes. Carry On isn’t not the most memorable album of his career, but if he drops either of those songs into his set at the Pabst, there’ll be no reason to complain.
Highlight: “Safe And Sound,” a soul-flecked ballad—with horns!—which sounds like a lost track from the Euphoria Morning sessions.
After the underachieving Carry On, Cornell seemed likely to slip into obscurity. With the release of this collaboration with Timbaland, however, Cornell instead found himself in the news following this infamous Trent Reznor tweet. We can all admit that it doesn’t start well—album opener “Part Of Me” does, in fact, find the ex-Soundgarden frontman repeatedly howling, “That bitch ain’t a part of me” over Timbaland’s bleeps and bloops. From there, though, his songwriting style and Timbaland’s production are actually pretty in-sync. If you forget for a moment that Cornell was, at least for a time, one of the best rock singers in the world, his work on Scream doesn’t sound silly. But is it good? No, but it’s not bad, either. The production is interesting throughout, and the fact that it’s busy—a prime complaint by people who bothered to review the record instead of just make fun of it—sounds like a deliberate artistic choice. A song like “Ground Zero,” the album’s third single, sounds nothing like vintage Soundgarden, but it’s also a cool sonic experiment that successfully places Cornell’s distinctive voice—and seldom-used falsetto—in an R&B setting. Better he take a chance on an album that only half works than spend 15 years re-making The Downward Spiral, eh, Trent?
Highlight: For all the grousing about the glitchy Timbaland beats, Scream’s closer is a bluesy, organic guitar-and-harmonica jam called “Two Drink Minimum” on which Cornell sounds very much in his element—and on top of his game.