Chris Cornell was an enigma. He could sound savage and tender at the same time. During his 52 years, he was grunge’s Golden God, a folky songsmith, a pop wailer and an easy-listening crooner. He possessed one of the most awe-inspiring voices of his generation, and possibly the greatest voice to emerge from grunge, and he could stretch it to work in any context. He even improbably made melisma sound cool in hard rock. Ultimately, there were many Chris Cornells. He could be looking California, feeling Minnesota or seeking a friend for the end of the world, depending on the song. Music fans knew David Bowie’s, Tom Petty’s and Prince’s genius at the times of their deaths, but Cornell died underappreciated.
A new box set, tellingly titled Chris Cornell, attempts to bring his musical career into focus. It contains four CDs of music he recorded with grunge archetypes Soundgarden, the tribute project and alt-rock flash point Temple of the Dog and straight-ahead supergroup Audioslave, as well as his softer solo excursions and collaborations with everyone from Santana to an obscure Italian pop band. It includes his schmaltzy James Bond theme, his cringe-worthy pop excursion with Timbaland and flights of fancy like when he would mash up two different songs called “One” by Metallica and U2. And there’s also a DVD of music videos from throughout his life, which show how his intensity evolved as he got older. There aren’t many previously unreleased recordings here — the most revelatory is the heartrending, gospel-inflected “When Bad Does Good” — but the collection succeeds in creating a vivid mosaic of all of Cornell’s talents.
The collection runs chronologically, beginning with 1987’s “Hunted Down,” and over the 49 tracks on the first three discs, you’re able to hear him grow up. (Disc four is all live material.) Soundgarden’s earliest music is marked by his confusion and anger. “I think I started out completely in that Iggy Pop direction of what was referred to as the quintessential ‘angry young man’: shirtless, screaming, aggressive, didn’t care if I sang on key, sort of unrestrainable in a live situation,” he once said. “But there was always another side to me, intellectually, that wanted other things.” On “Hunted Down” — a song with a guitar sound that foreshadowed Nirvana’s Killing Joke-aping “Come as You Are” — he’s singing obliquely about feeling trapped. “All Your Lies,” from Soundgarden’s first release (the Deep Six compilation from 1986) finds him screaming, “All your fears are lies,” over punky guitars. By 1990’s “Loud Love” and “Hands All Over” he was a heavy-metal howler, chucking salacious sexual innuendoes wherever he thought they’d land. (Not present but equally important is “Beyond the Wheel,” a tremulous rager on which Cornell climbed octave upon octave; it’s one of his most impressive performances.)
With Temple of the Dog, he lightened up and became more contemplative. Gone are the druggy, ponderous observations, replaced by cutting, direct lyrics about heartbreak and hurting. His roommate, Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, had died of an overdose and he felt so much. His singing on “Say Hello 2 Heaven” by Temple of the Dog — his tribute to Wood — is soulful and raw and the music is lighter and tender; he also showed his generosity of spirit with Temple, ceding some of the spotlight on the moving “Hunger Strike” to the then-unknown Eddie Vedder. Suddenly, he sounds like a tender soul with depth. He’s a virulent alpha male on “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage” (later covered by Johnny Cash), a folky sensitivo on his Singles soundtrack contribution “Seasons” and a psychedelic doomsayer on “Black Hole Sun,” which today sounds a bit like splitting the difference between Lewis Carroll, Sylvia Plath and Sgt. Pepper. You can see his piercing stare in the “Fell on Black Days” video.
After Soundgarden broke up, Cornell started soul searching in public, and his guises became more mercurial. He was an acoustic-leaning rocker on his first solo album, Euphoria Morning, which owed some debt to Led Zeppelin III. “Can’t Change Me” finds him writing an everything-but-the-kitchen sink song, full of hooks, and it works. When he joined Audioslave, he became a man at odds with his legacy — the perfect specimen of a rock star who has already grown up trying to fit into somebody else’s band (Rage Against the Machine). The brooding “Like a Stone” finds balance between his and his bandmates’ sensibilities — Cornell’s strong voice singing a snaky melody over Tom Morello’s echoey guitar — but it’s on “Cochise” where their styles find perfect harmony. “I’m not a martyr/I’m not a prophet,” Cornell shrieks over Morello’s bulldozing, even though he sounds like both. In the video, he looks like a rock Prometheus as fireworks stream around him. The rest of Audioslave’s output doesn’t live up to this promise, sounding a bit flat; their other really great song, “I Am the Highway,” appears later as a country-rock solo performance and it’s stunning.
After Audioslave, Cornell went back to redefining himself. He lacks Shirley Bassey’s glitz and intrigue on “You Know My Name,” his contribution to the Bond flick Casino Royale, but he humanizes the character, singing, “I’ve seen this diamond cut through harder men.” He finds new sadness in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”; by the time he’s done you want to cry for Billie as much as MJ as if it were a case of mistaken identity.
And then you get to Scream, Cornell’s stale collaboration with Timbaland. Here, he’s no longer a rock star, but a pop interloper trying to fit in. Here you have two brilliant musicians who can’t quite understand each other. No one wants to hear Chris Cornell exclaim, “That bitch ain’t a part of me,” to a fist-pumping Steve Aoki remix on “Part of Me.”And no one really wants to see Chris Cornell play an awkward wallflower in the club in the accompanying music video. Instead, the inclusion of a “rock version” of the LP’s “Long Gone” presents a new view on the project that complements Cornell’s talents. A previously unreleased video of him singing “Scream” with an acoustic guitar, only makes the case more, and he seems to drive it home when he closes a DJ’s laptop in Soundgarden’s “By Crooked Steps” clip.
The last seven years of Cornell’s life, captured on the third disc, are filled with highs and a few head scratchers as he continued to search for the perfect sound. His reunion with Soundgarden finds him confident and yowling as he used to. “I got nowhere to go ever since I came back/Just filling in the lines from the holes to the cracks,” he sings on “Been Away Too Long.” He’s also a solo troubadour here, singing an acoustic-guitar rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Temple of the Dog’s “Call Me a Dog.” It ends with songs from his last solo album, the mandolin-inflected Higher Truth album, by which point he’s become a rock polyglot (“Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart” is a perfect pop-rock song from a time when such a thing couldn’t make it on the radio) and the final song of his lifetime, “The Promise” which appeared on the soundtrack to the movie of the same name, finds him serving as rock’s answer to Andrea Bocelli — a classically backed easy-listening romantic and someone you wouldn’t expect to sing anything like “Kingdom of Come,” the second song on this compilation.
The unreleased material is scant but still telling. “When Bad Does Good,” the only previously un-issued studio recording here, opens with a church organ and Cornell singing about standing next to an open grave and working through depression. His voice is raw and reedy; he sounds enlightened. It’s hopeful and consoling despite the sadness. Standouts on the live disc include a moving rendition of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” and Cornell’s “One” — a clever combination that wrenches emotion from James Hetfield’s lyrics about suffering from injuries of war by singing them to one of Bono’s melodies. It hurts harder than Metallica’s machine-gun punishment. He sings an elongated version of Mother Love Bone’s “Stargazer” in tribute to that Wood, with Temple of the Dog, and he sings a sweet duet rendition of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” with his teenaged daughter Toni. It’s sweet and you can hear the love they shared as they harmonized on the song perfectly.
But the box set is still missing several sides of Chris Cornell. It doesn’t show uw the rock funnyman who sang Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom” and Cheech and Chong’s “Earache My Eye” at concerts and made a whole EP out of the Ohio Players’ “Fopp.” Also absent is Chris Cornell, the rebel, who led Soundgarden in performances of Body Count’s “Cop Killer” at a time when that song was all but verboten on Lollapalooza 1992. It also would have been nice to hear polished versions of the demos he wrote for other artists, such as the so-called Stolen Prayers tape that has floated around the bootleg market for years and includes rough versions of songs that Alice Cooper recorded. And his stunning acoustic ballad, “You Never Really Knew My Mind,” which he wrote using unused Johnny Cash poems should have been included. And it seems strange that “Island of Summer,” the one song Cornell recorded with Andrew Wood, was left off.
But the most glaring omission here is Chris Cornell, the fatalist. Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil recently told Rolling Stone that the only thing purposely left off of this set was anything too dark, given the fact that Cornell died by suicide. “There’s lyrics or titles that may not be appropriate in this context, that might be difficult for friends, family,” he said. So several hits didn’t make the cut, including “Bleed Together” and “Blow Up the Outside World,” on which he sings, “Nothing seems to kill me, no matter how hard I try.” Songs like these are painful to hear now — and there are many that hint at depression and suicidal thoughts — but they’re also part of who Cornell was and important to understanding his story.
The box set’s hardcover book attempts to fill in some of the gaps with essays by some of Cornell’s bandmates, including Thayil, Morello, Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron, Temple of the Dog’s Mike McCready and producer Brendan O’Brien. Although it also contains brilliant photos of Cornell from his career— sweating, flexing his muscles, with and without long hair —the most revealing missive comes from O’Brien. “Meeting Chris was a bit intimidating,” he wrote. “He was a great singer, tall, brooding and a bit aloof who was a fairly no-nonsense person that didn’t suffer fools particularly well. A pro. A smart-ass. My kinda guy.”
Searching for the artist within their music is almost a lost cause, especially with an artist with as many sides as Cornell. This collection (or any compilation for that matter) can’t come close to defining who Cornell truly was. He was multi-talented and a cipher; in some ways, he was impossible to know. But most of his truth appears to be in the music. The challenge is putting the puzzle pieces together.