Songbook, by Chris Cornell

The first time I heard Chris Cornell’s voice was on an Audioslave CD my dad gave me in 2006.

I might have heard “Black Hole Sun” on the radio before that, actually. But when I was a kid, the radio didn’t play songs from specific artists – it was just a magic box that spit out music constantly. I couldn’t absorb very much from it back then, only that I loved everything I heard. So, when I have my true musical awakening – which I discussed in the Minutes to Midnight post – that signaled a shift in how I perceived music, and for the first time I could truly attach myself to individual bands and artists and declare myself a fan. And, as I said in that post, Audioslave was in the top five from the start.

The wacky guitar gimmicks. The consistency and impressive melding of the bass and drums. And that voice – wailing, screeching, threatening to tear itself apart over everything. Chris Cornell was in a bad state during the recording of Audioslave, but even in a bad state, ravaged by drinking, smoking, and whatever the fuck else Chris did in the time between Soundgarden and Audioslave, he was ethereal. Unique. A truly absurd vocal range and a sharp ear for interesting music, no amount of substance abuse could fully suppress Chris’s creativity and natural talent. And he continued to demonstrate his multi-faceted musical talent that first began to emerge at the end of Soundgarden’s first life, moving from psychadelic grunge to adapting Rage Against the Machine’s rap-rock instrumentals – without the rap, of course – to the more alternative, nuanced style of Out of Exile and Revelations, until the tensions between himself and the former components of Rage simply could not continue together.

And then it was back to an on-again, off-again solo career. 1999’s Euphoria Morning was an interesting departure for Chris, with a heavy acoustic lean that still indulged in Chris’s favorite lyrical subjects. Grunge softened, morphed and merged with a more classic kind of hard, adult rock. But his solo career, which Chris was ready and primed for, was put back on the shelf when Audioslave came calling. In 2007, with Carry On, came another kind of shift, the feeling that it was a natural evolution of Chris’s solo style, now incorporating the alternative sound he’d learned from Audioslave. And who could forget the Bond theme, probably one of the best of the modern Bond run. Another big swing at making it as a solo artist, now that two bands were in the books behind him.

I try not to think about Scream most of the time, but what it demonstrated to me was that Chris had no fear, musically. The idea of a grunge god producing an entire album with a hip-hop producer, even one as well known as Timbaland, was laughable. And the album that resulted is, kindly, a mistake. It’s a good lesson in understanding that you probably shouldn’t pursue every idea that comes into your head, particularly when it has as big a chance to fail as Scream did. But by god, he did it anyway. That’s impressive to me. And the songs, when freed of their awful, uncharacteristic production, can work quite well – listen to the “rock version” of “Long Gone,” or the acoustic version of “Ground Zero” from this very album, Songbook, and you’ll hear the strength of the lyrics and song structures. They’re just not electronic pop tracks.

It’s interesting to me that Chris couldn’t stay solo for very long at any point in his career. You’d think that a musician as independent and creative as he was – his solo albums are really strong – would be able to do just fine on his own. But maybe the shadow of Soundgarden stood too tall over him. It never seemed like people ever talked about Chris Cornell as a solo act, only in the context of being a compelling, vital frontman. Maybe he rushed too quickly into Audioslave, rendering Euphoria Morning a curiosity in his discography rather than the starting point it was intended to be. In any case, his second foray into solo work lasted about as long as the first, when Soundgarden came calling for a successful resurrection.

But even with Soundgarden back to pay the bills – or perhaps because Soundgarden was back, and, aside from a revitalized musical output for the four of them, provided steady income – Chris was allured by solo work. He did a set of solo acoustic tours, usually under the “Songbook” header, and the first tour in 2011 is where this live album came from. And I promise I’m going to get to the album. But I’ve got some stuff to say before that.

There’s no good way to shoehorn it in, but Higher Truth is where Chris should have gone directly after Carry On. It’s a quieter album than Carry On, kind of a cross between that album and Euphoria Morning, but it’s just as strong, maybe even stronger, than any solo work he’d done before. It made sense to me that he would pursue it, even with Soundgarden attempting to put together another album – Chris needed the outlet and it was worth it to put Soundgarden on hold while he finished the album.

But now, that Soundgarden album may never be finished. Chris Cornell is gone, reportedly by his own hand. The sun is dimmer today.

I don’t want to talk about any motivation, not this soon, not this early, when the report was just released a few hours ago, as of posting time. It makes me uncomfortable. I spent the entire day asking why, and I have no answers. You could look at his subject matter – Chris was fond of writing about death, dying, passing on. But I would hesitate to call that indicative of his mindset, when it’s been his bread and butter for so long. Celebrities like Chris have a different face in public, and it shouldn’t be used as a barometer of his true feelings, but he seemed so content in recent years. Soundgarden was rolling, a successful reunion that actually produced new, good music. He had the freedom to do whatever he wanted even with Soundgarden being more or less constantly active since their reunion, and he used that freedom liberally, remaining active on his own the entire time. He released a new charity single just two months ago.

When you look at it that way, it’s difficult to understand. I think we will understand, in time. But it’s unimaginably sad to me. I want to know why, now. I want to understand, now.

You look at the big four of the Seattle grunge movement – Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam – and you see that three of the four frontmen are now dead. How lonely Eddie Vedder must feel today.

Temple of the Dog reformed, a one-off tribute band brought back into the public eye, for the 25th anniversary of their only album last year. Temple of the Dog was formed by Chris to memorialize Andrew Wood, frontman of Mother Love Bone, who died of a heroin overdose. Perhaps Vedder, who only contributed a little bit to Temple of the Dog, will memorialize Chris the same way.

I only saw Chris Cornell live one time, probably at the nadir of his musical relevance (and I do mean that kindly, but sincerely), in 2008, on the Projekt Revolution tour, the co-headliner next to Linkin Park. I’ll admit that I barely remember anything about the concert – I was 15, I was there for Linkin Park, the openers were just bonuses – but it sticks with me that that was the only chance I took to see him, now more than ever. I had my other opportunities – in 2012 during the first Songbook tour, and in 2014 when Soundgarden was touring with Nine Inch Nails – and I passed on both of them. “He’ll be around again,” I said, both times. I really wanted to see a Songbook show, but I willingly said “not this time.” And now there won’t be another time.

I’m going to think about that a lot.

As much as I enjoy Chris’s solo albums, and of course his work with Soundgarden and Audioslave, there’s no album of his that I love more than the live Songbook album. It’s the greatest hits retrospective he never did – not commercially, anyway – that strips away everything and puts Chris’s voice at the forefront, his greatest creation. It reveals him as the powerful singer and deft songwriter that he always has been. You look at the track list and it’s hit after hit after hit – “Call Me a Dog,” “Can’t Change Me,” “Fell on Black Days,” “Like a Stone,” and of course “Black Hole Sun.” The deeper cuts – “I Am the Highway,” “Scar on the Sky,” “All Night Thing,” the never-professionally-recorded “Cleaning My Gun.” The two smartly-chosen covers of “Thank You” and “Imagine.” And even the new track, “The Keeper,” to close out the album. Songbook is the retrospective to listen to today, and next week, and whenever you think of Chris Cornell and you just want to hear the man belt out some tunes. I don’t think there’s a bad song on here – even the opener, curious Scream hidden track “As Hope and Promise Fade,” is still a compelling listen here.

Chris gives a bit of insight into a couple of the songs, and his mindset when writing them. “Ground Zero” is preceded by the message that anger and hatred will not fix the horrors of September 11, while Chris explains on “Can’t Change Me” that it was the last song written for the album, which to me seems like a common theme for successful lead singles. You even get a bit of humor – “Imagine” is preceded by Chris noting that it’s a “good Easter song,” playing it the day before Easter that year. Of course, the Christian-friendly line “Nothing to kill or die for / and no religion too.”

There will never be another Chris Cornell. A one of a kind figure, an amazing songwriter with a generational voice. Soundgarden was the first grunge band to break into the mainstream, and though Pearl Jam is the most successful and revered of them – and they, alongside Nirvana, will likely be the only two of the big four enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – Soundgarden’s place in history can never be forgotten. And though Chris’s second and third acts, with Audioslave and with his solo career, will certainly not be as fondly remembered as his work in Soundgarden, when taken as a whole, Chris has had a career stronger and more important than most in rock history, securing him in the upper echelon of rock musicians for all time.

It will take time for us to know the full extent of what happened in that hotel room in Detroit. We may never know or understand why Chris did what he did, what he was feeling that night, and in the time leading up to it. If it was depression – and Chris had talked about suffering from depression in the 1990s – then the disease has claimed another life it never deserved to take. If it was something else, perhaps we will know in time. Perhaps we will have the knowledge to understand Chris in a way that we didn’t understand him in life. Regardless, it is a massive loss, for the music community, for the world, and for the pantheon of heroes I had, as a child and as an adult.

Say hello to heaven, Chris. Blow the doors down.

100-songbook

Released November 21, 2011

1 hr, 13 min

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Carry On, by Chris Cornell

50-carryon

Released May 28, 2007

1 hr, 2 min, 14 sec

Audioslave was broken up by the clashing of a singer’s solo career against the wishes of his instrumental collaborators.

Or maybe it was the money. Depends on who you want to believe, I suppose.

Regardless, Audioslave ended the way that Rage Against the Machine did, with Chris Cornell choosing to go his own way without the former Rage players, doing a second lap on the circuit of his solo career for the next three years. Rumors had been flying around throughout all of 2006 that Cornell’s solo album meant, or would mean, the end of Audioslave, and sure enough, the album was released just three months after the band’s breakup announcement. Recorded throughout 2006 and 2007, much of the album’s music was written with Audioslave in mind, but Cornell deemed them unfit for an Audioslave; he noted that he was “always writing,” which made this essentially inevitable.

The album takes a more generic rock sound than Audioslave’s, fueled by Cornell’s own individual music sensibilities and, possibly, a desire to make an explicit distinction between Audioslave and Cornell’s restarted solo career. Indeed, several of the songs on this album feel unfit for an Audioslave album; “Arms Around Your Love,” about a lover being wooed away, is a particular standout, while “Silence the Voices” uses a vocal style that would prevent it from mixing well with anything on Audioslave’s Revelations. “Scar on the Sky,” one of my personal favorites, is much too light, instrumentally, to ever be at home among the heavy, crashing sounds of Audioslave; the same goes for “Killing Birds” despite its darker subject matter.

Audioslave can still be heard on this album, however; the first two tracks in particular feel like they could be right at home on any of Audioslave’s three albums, despite Cornell’s best efforts to differentiate. Cornell does, however, experiment with his sound here; “Safe and Sound” incorporates horns, and feels more like a Southern rock track, slow and steady in its pacing. “She’ll Never Be Your Man” has a groove to it, with a swingy feel in the rhythm that makes it stand out from the rest of the album.

“Billie Jean” is a cover that probably shouldn’t exist, however. Since this is Chris Cornell pre-Scream, his take is an incredibly dour, down-tempo blues version, framing the situation described in the lyrics as being much, much more depressing than the Michael Jackson original. To be honest, this cover sucks all the life out of the song, which is probably to be expected, considering it’s a blues rock version of a Michael Jackson classic. Bonus points for not doing a straight rock cover of the song (looking at you, Adam and the Ants, with your boring-ass, safe-as-shit version of “Smooth Criminal”), but this is certainly not the way to go about re-interpreting it.

Of particular note is the bonus track “You Know My Name,” co-written with David Arnold for Casino Royale, the debut of Daniel Craig as James Bond. The Bond franchise had not had a theme song by a male vocalist since 1987’s “The Living Daylights” for the film of the same name, Timothy Dalton’s Bond debut. Cornell was approached because the film’s producers wanted a male voice for Casino Royale, and Cornell noted that Craig’s performance convinced him to take the offer. Living up to what the producers expected, “You Know My Name” is a strong rock track, with a driving beat and lyrics from Cornell that reflect on the new Bond’s psyche, helping to paint a new picture of the character to better fit Craig’s portrayal, while also reflecting on the familiarity of the character – hence, the song’s title and refrain.

“You Know My Name” is Cornell’s biggest solo single, and one of the most successful songs he’s provided vocals for, with a warm critical reception to go alongside it. Carry On cannot boast the same results; the album was not well-received, with many feeling that the album was a disappointment after Audioslave, and that it didn’t do very many interesting things musically. A common complaint was that the album’s musical styles did not blend very well at all, and that the end result was a confusing, conflicting sound palette.

Nevertheless, Cornell plowed forward with his at-this-point questionable solo career, turning in an even more upsetting album two years later, with the Timbaland-produced Scream. I don’t have that one in my library because, well, why the fuck would I? I’ll make sure to cover it in a Spotify special, however, because this is one album that deserves that treatment.

I like Carry On. It’s nowhere near a flawless album, and Cornell certainly makes some confusing, questionable musical choices on it (“Billie Jean” in particular), but it is a solid outing worthy of the pedigree Cornell had built with his careers in Soundgarden and Audioslave. The fact that it is a solid album with a great number of catchy tracks makes Scream all the more baffling as a follow-up, and that album’s horrendous critical reception likely played a large part in Cornell’s retreat back to the reformed Soundgarden the very next year.

Perhaps that’s for the best; solo work never seemed to fit Cornell. He’s a vocalist that works far, far better when part of a unit that can put out fantastic instrumental music, and Soundgarden is where he should stay as long as he can.