In his unassuming way, Chris Cornell has become a considerable artist in the post-grunge decades. Songbook, recorded on his recent acoustic tour, will burnish and advance that reputation.
At its height, grunge appeared to represent something serious, not just in its morbid, druggy, downbeat aesthetic, but artistically too. Yet that has turned out not to be the case. With Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley dead, we were left with not much. Pearl Jam have sold plenty of records, but struggled to make a great one, dragged down by their sheer worthiness; minor scenesters like Mudhoney and Tad were minor for a reason. It has been Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters, a lighter-hearted, mainstream rock band, and plastic plaidster Scott Weiland who have remained the most visible. Grohl is too self-aware to describe himself as a heavyweight, while Weiland remains so only in his mind.
Superficially, Chris Cornell might also be judged as falling just short. His career post-Soundgarden has some holes in it. He has, like Scott Weiland, joined a supergroup in Audioslave, and dallied with various ‘projects’. Yet from them have come these songs – well most of them, there are two covers, of Led Zeppelin’s Thank You and John Lennon’s Imagine, and two from Soundgarden, Black Hole Sun and Fell On Black Days – and, refracted through the light of his extraordinary voice, they assume the quality of something special.
Part of that is due to their bareness. Cornell accompanies himself on acoustic guitar and he plays the songs simply, allowing all of their beauty and nuance to come from his singing. At times, in some of the more lyrically desolate moments when his voice drops to a slow croon, he has the same sullen power that Bruce Springsteen brought to Nebraska.
But he has much more at his disposal. I Am The Highway and Cleaning My Gun feature more of his range, as does a lovely take on Audioslave’s Doesn’t Remind Me. Considering he was the first to strip apart Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, it would have been fascinating to hear him do the same to one of his own – Jesus Christ Pose, maybe, or Rusty Cage. Black Hole Sun and Fell On Black Days are safer choices, but are soulfully done.
He’s making another Soundgarden album next year, and that might be quite something, too. An artist from 1990s Seattle needs to transcend those years. Maybe it will be Chris Cornell.