Chris Cornell Through the Years

At the beginning of this week, it wasn’t clear what I was going to write about.  Maybe I’d review Erin McKeown’s album.  Maybe I’d talk about a TV show.  Maybe I’d get in some Trump-bashing.

And then Chris Cornell died.

One of the greatest rock vocalists of all time, Cornell was found unresponsive in his hotel room after a show in Detroit after an apparent suicide by hanging.  Cornell’s wife Vicky is now saying that anxiety medication may be to blame for his suicidal thoughts.  Cornell was most famous as the frontman of Soundgarden, one of the bands that I refer to as the “grunge triangle,” with Pearl Jam and Nirvana, that helped pioneer this era in rock during the 90s.  In my opinion, Cornell was the most talented of the three lead singers, with a titanic vocal range and an ability to wail and emote like few others.

But Soundgarden is not all Cornell was known for, and I felt it appropriate this week to give him the Through the Years treatment in the same way I did for Mark Tremonti, tracking all the different music he’s made over the years in different contexts.

Cornell’s journey started with Soundgarden, where he teamed up with guitarist Kim Thayil and drummer Matt Cameron in Seattle.  Hiro Yamamoto started out as the band’s bassist.  I’ll admit, I’m not familiar with many of their early releases, EPs Screaming Life (1987), Fopp (1988), or albums Ultramega OK (1988) and Louder Than Love (1989), so I’m going to skip over them here.

Soundgarden’s career didn’t really crack the mainstream until their album Badmotorfinger hit in 1991.  This came in the wake of their only major lineup change, with Yamamoto leaving in favor of new bassist Ben Shepherd.  I think part of why I like Soundgarden more than the other “grunge triangle” bands is that they seemed more open to experimentation than most grunge bands, who were more known for simplicity than anything else.  Weird stuff is all over this record, such as in “Jesus Christ Pose.”  But there’s plenty of straightforward rock and roll on there, and that’s where I think they excel the best.  “Outshined” is probably my favorite Soundgarden song, because it’s aggressive, raw, and honest, like I feel rock should always be.  Kim Thayil’s guitar parts are an absolutely perfect complement to Cornell’s wail.  “Rusty Cage” provides a note of determined optimism, with the main character swearing that he’ll “break my rusty cage and run.”

1991 proved a busy year for Cornell, as he brought together the band Temple of the Dog in a tribute to his friend Andrew Wood, lead singer of the bands Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone, who had died of a heroin overdose the previous year.  The band consisted of a mishmash of members of Wood’s bands, Soundgarden, and two future members of Pearl Jam, which was just getting started in 1991.  Despite this somewhat slapdash arrangement, the album is excellent and the chemistry between the members is real.  “Hunger Strike” is probably Temple of the Dog’s most famous song, and features both Cornell and Eddie Vedder at the peak of their vocal powers.   I’m also partial to “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” Cornell’s first song written as a tribute to Wood, and “All Night Thing,” a mellow one-night stand song.  “Call Me a Dog” is another highlight, and Cornell would frequently cover it on his solo tours.  Temple of the Dog disbanded after this album was made, but had several one-off reunions as well as a reunion tour in 2016 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their album.

Soundgarden’s most successful album by far was their next, Superunknown (1993).  This album contains the song the band is most known for, “Black Hole Sun.”  I’ve often wondered why this song became as big of a hit as it did, because while it’s good, it’s probably one of the most generic and least interesting songs on the album.  “My Wave,” with the unconventional 5/4 time signature that creates an erratic but cool sound (not to mention exploring the unorthodox keys of E minor and B Mixolydian) is one of my favorites.  “Spoonman” has a similarly energetic vibe as well, and became a successful single.  Many of Soundgarden’s songs have a weight to their sound, like something is pressing down on them or they’re walking through molasses.  This isn’t a bad thing, mind you, just something that’s characteristic of their style in this era.  “Mailman” shows this off very clearly, as does “Fell On Black Days.”

Soundgarden returned in 1996 with Down on the Upside, an album with which I’m less familiar, but overall it seemed a step back from their previous two releases.  My favorite song on this album is probably “Pretty Noose,” as it has a similar energy and sound to my favorite songs on Superunknown.  Though given that Cornell ended up committing suicide by hanging, the song has taken on a weird new meaning in the wake of that event.  Lyrics like “…and I don’t like what you’ve got me hanging from,” certainly seem to be a weird sort of foreshadowing.  The song “Ty Cobb,” is not about the titular baseball player, but it was titled that because the lyrics reminded Ben Shepherd of him.  Cobb was amazingly talented and broke many records, but was also known for his alcoholism, womanizing, and virulent racism.  Cornell said the lyrics are from the perspective of “some hardcore pissed-off idiot.”  While touring in support of this album, the band’s dissatisfaction with the music industry fostered tension among the members, and led to their breakup in 1997.

Cornell would later go on to form Audioslave, but in the inter-band period, he released his first solo album, Euphoria Morning (1999).  Fun fact: the album’s original title was supposed to be Euphoria Mourning, but a typo changed the name, and it stuck.  Euphoria Morning is much slower and drawn out than anything Soundgarden ever did, and while Cornell sticks with the experimental spirit that characterized that band, he does it in a different way, veering into psychedelia.  This is most apparent in “Wave Goodbye,” which Cornell wrote as another tribute, this time to Jeff Buckley, the acclaimed singer/songwriter who drowned in 1997 at only 30 years old.  With its wah pedal effects and strong bass line, I feel like that song could be equally at home on a Doors record as a Chris Cornell one.  That, combined with the dissonant chords of songs like “Sweet Euphoria,” make this an interesting experiment, even if it doesn’t hit you as hard as a Soundgarden record.  Cornell even skirts the folk line with “Preaching the End of the World,” with its minimalist music that features little more than an acoustic guitar.  Another fun fact: a lyric from that song became the title of a movie starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley.

When Rage Against the Machine’s vocalist, Zack de la Rocha, quit the band in 2000, other members Tom Morello, Brad Wilk, and Tim Commerford were looking to form another band.  Enter Chris Cornell, who was also recently bandless, and the quartet formed the supergroup Audioslave, releasing their self-titled album in 2002.  It was Audioslave where I was first introduced to Cornell’s vocal stylings, so I’m probably a bigger fan of theirs than most who first listened to Soundgarden.  One key difference between the two bands is that each member got to show off their talents by taking prominent roles in different songs.  Tom Morello showed early on in this record that he is a very different guitarist than Kim Thayil, with a more tech-savvy and inventive approach to his craft.  For instance, many of his solos incorporate the use of feedback noise between his guitar and amplifier, something many bands would consider more of an annoyance than an artistic device.  Audioslave exploded onto the scene with their debut single “Cochise,” which characterized a more straight-ahead, alternative style of theirs, in contrast to the rap-rock innovation of RATM or the progressive style of Soundgarden.  “Like a Stone” is one of my other favorites from this album.

Audioslave had a much more cohesive sound on their next album, Out of Exile (2005).  As a result, it’s probably their best album top-to-bottom.  In “Be Yourself,” bassist Tim Commerford got one of many chances to stand out on the intro.  It’s also probably one of the most positive songs Cornell has ever performed on.  “Doesn’t Remind Me” once again shows Cornell’s more contemplative side.  Even the deep cuts of this album have several gems, with “Heaven’s Dead,” reminiscent of more lumbering Soundgarden songs, but with a sound that’s very clearly Audioslave.  A friend once described “Dandelion” to me as one of the most romantic rock songs she’d ever heard (I’m more partial to this one, but whatever), and it has a much softer and caring side to it than most other Audioslave songs.  Cornell also achieved a personal milestone in this record, as it was his first where he didn’t drink or take drugs during the recording process.  Cornell’s substance issues had threatened to tank Audioslave before it even got started, so that was good to see.

Audioslave wasted no time in the interim between albums, releasing Revelations the following year.  Tom Morello described the record in an interview as “Led Zeppelin meets Earth, Wind, and Fire,” and I think that actually describes it perfectly.  There’s a funkiness to this record that wasn’t really present in any of Chris Cornell’s former bands, and I think the songs on it are more interesting as a result.  There’s a sort of bouncy energy in a lot of the songs, like the verses of “One and the Same,” the chorus of “Revelations,” and the main riff of “Original Fire.”  Much of this is powered by Brad Wilk’s relentlessly fast drum line and Tom Morello’s abuse (more than normal, even) of his wah pedal.  “One and the Same” was one of the few times since Soundgarden that Cornell got to show off his wail.  “Wide Awake” was also the band’s first foray into the political commentary that had previously been Rage Against the Machine’s forte.  The song called out then-President George W. Bush for his mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Audioslave abruptly disbanded without even touring in support of Revelations, when Cornell announced he was leaving “due to irreconcilable personality conflicts as well as musical differences.”  According to interviews, he didn’t like the process of “doing Audioslave business,” and said that the band’s chemistry had broken down.  He’d written several songs that didn’t fit in on Audioslave records, and he compiled them into his second solo album, appropriately titled Carry On (2007).  This album, to me, sounds like what would happen if you took Tom Morello out of Audioslave and left most everything else intact.  It’s a pretty straightforward hard rock record, but without Morello’s creative flourishes.  It has a more mature sound than much of Cornell’s previous work.  “No Such Thing” is one of his most underrated songs, with a passionate and driving chorus. “Finally Forever” once again shows off his romantic side.  But probably the most creative song on here is his cover of the Michael Jackson song “Billie Jean.”  It’s always interesting when cover songs cross genres, and that’s definitely true here.  The original is much more bouncy and dance hall-ish, where Cornell’s version has a slow and haunting feel.

Remember Audioslave’s foray into R&B sounds on Revelations?  Cornell took that to a new level in his third studio album, Scream (2009), teaming up with Timbaland to create an interesting experiment in electronic pop.  The result is an album that gave me… mixed feelings.  Timbaland just flat-out overproduces many of the songs, which means we get bizarre creations like “Sweet Revenge” or “Take Me Alive.”  But when he pulls back and lets Cornell sing, the results are much better.  One of my favorite moments of the record is when the end of “Take Me Alive” bleeds into “Long Gone,” which then bleeds into the start of the title track, “Scream.”  This is true of most tracks on Scream, but it works the best here.  “Scream” also has interesting lyrics, talking about how communication can break down in relationships.  “Part of Me” and “Ground Zero” are probably the best pure pop songs on the record, which were remixed into club versions that did fairly well.

After Scream wasn’t especially well-received by critics or fans, Cornell kind of ambled around for awhile, reworking some tracks from that album into rock versions, and generally biding his time until the next thing.  That next thing happened when Soundgarden unexpectedly reunited in 2010.  They started out releasing some compilations and retrospectives, with some new tracks scattered here and there.  They finally put out an album of new material in 2012 with King Animal.  Soundgarden showed that they still had their experimental spirit, but I didn’t gravitate to this album for the same reason I never really made it all the way through Badmotorfinger: it just got too weird for me in places.  I liked the comeback single “Been Away Too Long,” but beyond that, little seemed to stand out for me.  “By Crooked Steps” was decent until the ending got a little odd.  But the album was much better-received by the general public than Scream had been.

Cornell took a break from Soundgarden to release what would be his final album in 2015, Higher Truth.  Cornell recorded every song on this record on acoustic, which made it interesting and was a much more cautious approach that what he did on Scream.  The result is a much more consistent and engaging album, but one that probably doesn’t eclipse a lot of his earlier work.  If you want more detailed thoughts on this one, I reviewed it back when it came out.  This album makes it all the sadder that Cornell died when he did, because it seems to reflect a new maturity and appreciation for what he had learned in life, which one would hope would lead him to a more stable place.  Unfortunately, that was not to be, and we have lost a great artist and talented singer before his time.  Rest in peace, Chris, from all your fans.








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