Try to take a picture of the sun

Chris-Cornell-Higher-Truth

Chris Cornell is back in London next May, playing the Royal Albert Hall as part of his solo European tour. And, as the sleuths among you will have deduced from this simple fact, he has a new solo album to promote, the Brendan O’Brien-produced Higher Truth.*

It’s Cornell’s fifth solo album, and I have to confess shamefacedly that to date this is the first one I’ve listened to. My reasons are diverse. Euphoria Morning (or Mourning, as Cornell has recently said it should have been titled) came out in the late 1990s and I wasn’t listening to much grunge-related music then, preferring The Bluetones to Badmotorfinger (I’ve since found out he wrote this album with Alain Johannes, who has more recently collaborated so productively with Mark Lanegan, so a spin or two is long overdue). Post-Audioslave and post-Bond single I was disinclined to track down follow ups Carry On or Scream, especially with the latter being produced by Timbaland).

Cornell

Most recently I’ve been meaning to give his live album Songbook a whirl for a while, but four years have slipped by and in the meantime Soundgarden have reformed and recorded a new album…** For the record, I’ve always considered it imperative that musicians stretch themselves on their solo material, not don’t simply putting out more of the same that didn’t make the cut for their main band; the direction Cornell had been moving towards didn’t greatly excite me, but neither would a “Soundgarden cutting-room floor” album have done. Critics…

Chris-Cornell-Higher-Truth-2

Anyhoo, piloting ably between the Soundgarden-reject Scylla and the hip hop-inflected Carybdis, Higher Truth is a fine, if flawed, release. With its exploration of Americana and its (mostly) stripped-down sound, it finds Cornell inhabiting similar terrain to his friend and fellow Seattle songwriter Eddie Vedder. There are some delightful, understated orchestrations. From the opening mandolin notes of lead-off single ‘Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart’, the quality of the songwriting is crystal clear. O’Brien’s limpid arrangements showcases how Cornell’s voice has matured, maintaining his seemingly effortless sustain whilst adding greater subtlety and timbre, albeit at the expense of some higher-end range (which has downgraded over time from extraordinary to merely impressive, though it’s hardly neither surprising nor a great loss that he can no longer reach the glass-shattering notes he managed on some early Soundgarden songs).

Cornell has at times been criticised for his lyrics – perhaps a tad unfairly, though he lacks Vedder’s poetic ear and precision of expression – but his vocal performances have always ably amplified the sincerity in his sentiments; with him, it’s often in his delivery where the meaning of a song truly resides. The occasional clunky or obtuse metaphor is easily forgotten when sung with such candid vulnerability, and the themes of the album are fairly easy to discern: the passing of the seasons, uxoriousness, parenthood, rainy weather. (I make it seven songs with references to clouds and/or rain,*** but perhaps we should give him a break, he is from Seattle after all. He’s always been fond of bucolic metaphors generally.)

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The album drifts at times, notably when songs are over-arranged or beats too electronic; Cornell attempts and falls (understandably) short of The Beatles with lush title track ‘Higher Truth’. Cornell has cited Daniel Johnston and Nick Drake as central influences in the making of this album, and a more consistently sparse and folky vibe, along with some more stringent song selection, would have served him well. When he does pursue this vibe, the music soars as strikingly as his voice, most memorably on ‘Dead Wishes’ and ‘Let Your Eyes Wander’, but, including bonus tracks, the album weighs in at 67 minutes; compare this with the focused punch of Vedder’s 33-minute Into the Wild soundtrack. Incidentally, the three bonus tracks (putting the remix of ‘Our Time in the Universe’ aside) are all strong compositions – ‘Wrong Side’ adding a western twang and ‘Misery Chain’ some elegant minor chords.

Lest there be any remaining doubt about the calibre of Cornell’s voice now he’s the other side of 50, however, this spell-binding cover of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ should settle any argument. Sinead O’Connor may well-nigh have stolen ownership of this song from Prince, but Cornell comes close to pinching it from under her nose.

This time last year, I squirrelled some Soundgarden hyperlinks away, fully intending to transform them into a patchwork quilt of a blog post, stitched together with the thread of my, err, silken prose (laboured analogies? oh yes!). Having failed signally to do so – unlike my other half, crafty matters are not my forté – I shall append them to this post instead…

Last November, Soundgarden released their B sides and rarities collection, Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path.**** As ever with these things (in the manner of, say, Bob Dylan’s Bootleg series), it’s available in different versions, depending how deep you want to dig: from the one-disc CD highlights, through the three-disc CD boxset and on to the six-disc vinyl deluxe etc etc (released this May – the tracklisting is the same on the latter three-disc boxset, but with extra original artwork, plus you can’t beat vinyl).

soundgarden echo of miles cover

Echo of Miles splits neatly into three sections: originals, including the likes of well-thumbed oldies ‘Birth Ritual’ and ‘Heretic’ and newbies ‘Kristi’ and ‘Storm’, the last of which contains some classic Thayil lead runs, always close to but never quite spiralling out of control – I can’t think of another guitarist who sounds like him; covers, from Black Sabbath, ‘Into the Void’ and The Beatles, ‘Come Together’, to Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Thank You’ and the peerless Spinal Tap, ‘Big Bottom’; and weird stuff like their 1988 jam, ‘Twin Tower’.

In terms of getting to know a band that bit more deeply, the value of this sort of release is threefold: the choice of covers often provides the clearest indication of roots; the originals demonstrate deftly evolution over time and how albums take shape by seeing what narrowly missed the cut; the weird stuff shows range and how far a band will push itself as part of the evolution of its sound. I haven’t heard the whole thing yet, but Isabella Yeager has written a mighty fine review of it that you can digest here.

Turn it up to 11 and enjoy the video below!

* The most agile sleuths among you may have deduced it even earlier than that, from the image at the top of the page.
** Honestly. There are tectonic plates that move with more alacrity than me. I do now have a copy of Songbook. Maybe I’ll even listen to it before year end.
*** ‘Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart’, ‘Worried Moon’, ‘Through the Window’, ‘Josephine’, ‘Murderer of Blue Skies’, ‘Let Your Eyes Wonder’, ‘Circling’. ‘Before We Disappear’ throws in a storm for good measure. The sun crops up surprisingly often elsewhere for a native of the American north-west.
**** I do have form for taking a year to release a post, in the shape of my review of Pearl Jam’s Prague gig; well worth the wait for those priceless pearls of wisdom (and, um, startling photography), you’ll doubtless agree.

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About Mark Anstee

guitarist, Radio Seattle View all posts by Mark Anstee

4 responses to “Try to take a picture of the sun

  • jellybeanerz

    I did purchase the new album and I LOVE it! I did see Chris in concert for Scream and I loved him and Timbaland’s performance. You didn’t state WHY you don’t care for Timbaland? but in his defense he made a really cool speech at the end of his set about absent parents paying their child support which I thought was really cool. I haven’t bought anything of his on purpose until that concert! Although I knew him from cameos on other artists stuff. Bottom line is that I did enjoy and appreciate your article! First time I’ve read your stuff myself, nicely done!

    • Mark Anstee

      Hey, thanks for the kind words. I have to confess ignorance to Timbaland’s work (my knowledge of hip hop doesn’t extend much beyond Public Enemy and Ice T); more than anything I wasn’t convinced it was the right direction for Cornell, though I applaud him for taking risks. And I applaud Timbaland’s sentiments about child support. I’ll check him out.

      I’d still maintain that Higher Truth drifts a bit, but the more spins I give it the more I appreciate it. Cornell remains a rare vocal talent and there’s some lovely acoustic guitar work on this album.

      Glad you enjoyed the review – do please sign to my blog!

  • Like a bird without a song | radio seattle

    […] two more links in honour of Prince: one from Chris Cornell that I’d posted before in my review of Higher Truth (you can also read Cornell’s tribute to Prince here), and one I’d never heard before, […]

  • Sleeping with a full moon blanket | radio seattle

    […] paid attention to Cornell’s solo material, but I’m glad to have done so (review here); I’d go as far as to say that it suits his voice and his songwriting these days more closely […]

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