I love Soundgarden. They really are one of my favourite bands of the decade that was the nineteen-nineties. Not only were they consistently great, but Cornell was a marvellous front-man. He was the best looking man in rock back in 1991 (at least I’m pretty sure he was – better looking than Vedder, Cobain and Patton at any rate), and he was oddly humble the whole time. I remember reading in Metal Hammer in 1996 his answer to ‘what would you do if Pamela Anderson propositioned you’; it was something to do with lawsuits and being happily married.
Anyway, the music. I have liked Soundgarden since I was about eleven years of age, and Cornell had this strange knack of improving with every release: Badmotorfinger was better than what had come before; Temple of the Dog better than that; Superunknown better still; Down on the Upside was the best Soundgarden release of them all, and don’t let anyone tell you different; his first solo album proper, Euphoria Morning, managed to improve even on that. Not only was there a steady increase in quality, but the style changed with it.
Soundgarden, like that first generation of grunge bands, liked to make noise in a fuzzed-out-Sabbath style. Of course, that generation can be pretty easily summed up by looking at the track-listing of the seminal Deep Six compilation from the mid-eighties. Their peers were the likes of Melvins, Green River, Malfunkshun and I’d argue even St. Vitus. Wino from the latter band wrote that he’d been ‘born too late’ what with the thrash metal being cool at that time, but he was definitely not alone in the Sabbath worship. Even the first Nirvana album is in thrall to this style of rock.
By the start of the nineties, what was once grunge (but I would argue no more, in the strict sense) was making it big. Former glam rock band Alice In Chains were building up steam, as were Pearl Jam, another band whose roots lay in glam (Mother Love Bone represent). Luckily, proper grunge bands were also making headway, in the form of Nirvana and Soundgarden (you also had Screaming Trees and Afghan Whigs, but neither band was ever really grunge).
So, with metal still just about being the toast of the rock town (Metallica and Megadeth releasing their biggest albums, Queensrÿche still being pretty damn massive), Soundgarden effectively incorporated metal riffing into the mix, complementing Cornell’s Plant-goes-hardcore vocals perfectly. Superunknown tempered the speed freakery with a fuller, bassier, mix and Down on the Upside was just insanely varied for the time.
With a lot of Soundgarden’s best songs being of the ballad variety (‘Room a Thousand Years Wide’, ‘The Day I Tried to Live’, Fell on Black Days’, ‘Zero Chance’), and written solely by Cornell, it stood to reason that the first album released under his name would be stripped of the riffery. Prior to its release in 1999, he said it would be a ‘singer’s record’, and it was clearly going to be influenced by his late friend Jeff Buckley. It was a beautiful piece of work, the delicately layered arrangements working perfectly as a backing to his pained, wonderfully recorded vocal.
I made the mistake of missing his date that year at Manchester Academy, and he ended up in a band with the former Rage Against The Machine instrumentalists, initially called Civilian, but later officially dubbed Audioslave. Here is where the disappointment began as, a few choice riffs and the gorgeous ‘Like a Stone’ aside, Cornell had released his first mediocre album. It certainly wasn’t bad, but the sheer fact it wasn’t that good was alarming enough.
Audioslave released two more albums – that I didn’t even hear – and split up after enjoying a deserved amount of commercial success (hey, I’m not going to grudge the quartet some dollars after the entertainment they have given me in the big picture). Cornell resurfaced with ‘You Know My Name’, a suitably camp Bond theme and again it wasn’t bad; wasn’t great.
Alarm bells sounded first when it turned out the latter song was going to be on his debut album (a camp fun single is one thing, but it might besmirch an otherwise serious ‘artist album’), and then when news broke that he was covering ‘Billie Jean’. To make matters worse, I heard a new song in HMV and was unmoved.
So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I downloaded Carry On, his new album, and we are now up to speed. I was definitely expecting something very Adult Orientated Rock in its sound, a tad bland perhaps, and my expectations proved right. Part of me would like to write it off as a bad album so I don’t have to bother with it anymore (and spare myself more potential heartache as I consider what could have been), but there are glimpses of the old Cornell to bring me back into the mix, batting my wings against the window pane like a moth catching sight of a lamp on a cold winter night.
Opener ‘No Such Thing’ offered both that relief of blandness (yay, I don’t have to bother any more!) and the empty feeling in ones gut that comes with a long-time favourite failing to bring the goods. It was no ‘Let me Drown’ as far as album starters go, that’s for sure. But then, something about ‘Poison Eye’ heartened me a tad. It wasn’t like he’d started massively rocking out or anything (that reminds me: ‘No Such Thing’ had a decent bit of guitar about it), but that was the point.
It seems that it is when Cornell tries to rock out these days that he makes the biggest missteps. It was true of ‘Mission’, by far the weakest song on Euphoria Morning and pretty much of Audioslave as a whole. What so filled me with chagrin was that, after an excellent album largely composed of ballads that suited his ageing voice, his attempts to rock were just awkward and unnecessary. So ‘Poison Eye’ was a small triumph in that it had his one-time trademark wicked little vocal melodies and that tightrope walk of self-deprecation and misanthropy (previously seen on the likes of ‘Burden in my Hand’ and ‘Follow My Way’).
For the most part, though, this is MOR (though let’s not get carried away, it’s no worse than The Killers or recent Flaming Lips): songs like ‘Disappearing Act’, ‘Ghosts’ and Finally Forever’ are neither here nor there. What’s worse is that, a couple of hours removed from my initial listen, I can’t even remember a lot of the tracks.
It is in the unlikeliest places that this album succeeds. I was terrified of hearing his take on ‘Billie Jean’, especially when his own songs sounded so bland, but this stripped down, slo-mo performance actually works. I was rather dreading the high notes of ‘the kid is not my son’, but Cornell carried it of with aplomb. Similar was the odd ‘She’ll Never Be Your Man’.
Being a positive person, I won’t accuse the song of being anti-gay women (definitely one reading, as Cornell mentions all the roles the titular woman can fill, but ‘she’ll never be your man’. Hmm), so we are left with a bizarrely good Cornell-goes-Prince workout. Luckily, Chris doesn’t try to out-sex the tiny genius, but there is a definite reminder of ‘I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man’ or ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’.
We get some lyrically ‘nasty Cornell’ on the likes of ‘Poison Eye’ and ‘Killing Birds’, and the vocals range from good to occasionally great. I just wish he’d go back to writing songs that suit his voice. While it would definitely be great if he would go back to working with Eleven, or sonically stripped further down, I suppose the lure of the FM rock dollar is too great. Perhaps most worryingly, the familiarity presented by ‘You Know My Name’ was actually a massive positive, which rather sums up this album: on its own it’s OK. As a follow-up to Euphoria Morning it’s a disaster. The small mercy here is that it is just good enough not to turn me off the man. Which is pretty sad, all things considered.