Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ultramega OK

It's now a week since the news of Chris Cornell's death broke, and a good time for further reflections.

What struck me the most was the fact that tributes came pouring in from right across the musical spectrum. Last year, the deaths of both David Bowie and Prince prompted such a reaction, but I hadn't expected it for the former frontman of Soundgarden and Audioslave. Few will have been surprised at the tributes paid by the likes of Jimmy Page, Tommy Iommi and former bandmate Tom Morello, but it's hard to imagine another musician also being the subject of eulogies from everyone from Elton John, Brian Wilson, Nile Rodgers and Timbaland to Best Coast, Wavves and Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley.

Inevitably, I found myself revisiting Soundgarden's back catalogue - admittedly, for the first time in a long while. First port of call was 'Jesus Christ Pose', but after that it had to be Superunknown, rightly hailed on its twentieth anniversary as "the platonic ideal of what a mainstream hard rock album should be" by Pitchfork's Stuart Berman. It's an incredible album: complex, deep, multi-faceted, utterly engrossing. In the wake of Cornell's death, Berman has also written a piece for Noisey about the five different dimensions of Soundgarden - and all five of them are perfectly exemplified on Superunknown.

From there, I moved onto Down On The Upside - an even more diverse album that proved to be their last until reformation and 2012's King Animal. It's a record that, for me, never really gets its due - and, sure enough, none of its tracks featured in Stevie Chick's list of Cornell's ten most definitive songs. Admittedly, its two highest points (in my view), 'Zero Chance' and 'Switch Opens', were both written by Ben Shepherd - but Cornell's vocal performance is inevitably front and centre throughout.

That list did include Audioslave's 'Cochise', though - a song that I subsequently revisited and that, in conjunction with its firework extravaganza video directed by Mark Romanek, is a real tour de force, thanks largely to Cornell's full-throttle vocal performance.

While I wasn't hugely keen on Audioslave otherwise, and while much of his post-Soundgarden work was dreadful, Cornell nevertheless deserves great credit for his "refusal to stand still artistically", as the Guardian's Alexis Petridis put it. Many musicians of Cornell's stature would be tempted to settle into a comfortable groove, every now and again knocking out albums that feel instantly familiar, but he continually sought to challenge both himself and what was expected of him. Scream, his Timbaland-produced solo record released in 2009, is by all accounts awful (I can't bring myself to listen to more than a couple of tracks) - but I'll defend his right to try something completely different. Ultimately, he should be celebrated not just as a great rock vocalist but as someone who retained creative ambition to the end.

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