Thursday, May 18, 2017

R.I.P. Chris Cornell


Soundgarden, more than any other mainstream act from their time and place, were the full embodiment of the “Grunge” aesthetic.  Whereas their mainstream contemporaries veered closer to the melodic end of punk (Nirvana’s bastardizing of the Pixies/Husker Du aesthetics) or classic rock (Pearl Jam).  Much of this was due to Kim Thayil’s insane Sabbath-style riffage, mounted approximately at the apex of sludge metal, Jane’s-style hard rock with a tinge of psychedelia, and SST post-hardcore, but one can’t discredit Cornell whose soaring vocals could gravitate from low rumble demon to high squealed possession with the rapidity of a jet engine and the grace of a bird of prey.  Cornell’s voice was gravelly and lived-in, sure, but it also had the animalistic timbre of something lurking deep in those Washington evergreens.



Cornell, particularly pre-chopped with the long curly locks, was also the prime image of grunge.  He looked better when dirtied, unlike Kurt with his fluffy blonde hair, disheveled Eddie, gas-station ponytail creep Layne, or better-when-glammed-up Scott. Cornell oozed sex as if the worksmanlike personification of that patented Seattle flannel, which he never really wore.  He looked like a dark drifter.   Whereas the smug irony of Cobain and the impassioned liberalism of Vedder would become archetypes, Cornell remained a mystery. 

Soundgarden recorded for both Sub Pop and SST early in their career and they were one of the first groups to jump ship to a major label.  But while contemporaries from those scenes made this transition by broadening their sound (like Husker Du) or by competing directly against the market forces trying to lure them (like Sonic Youth), Soundgarden seemed at home in both worlds.  They put out two incredible big rock albums in Badmotofinger and Superunknown (both with unbelievably bad album art mind you) that never seemed to weather the same accusations of “sell out” that other bands at the time faced.  Maybe it was because they’d been the first to sell out, or maybe it was because those albums still hold up today even when many of their peers’ records don’t.   When you consider the glut of contemporary music from the early 90s – post-rock, jungle, IDM, rave, dreampop, house- that didn’t crossover but had a far greater impact on the current sonic landscape, it’s an even bigger feat. 

Soundgarden were massive enough to have Guns n’ Roses cover their dumbest song, but remained fairly indistinct as personalities, supporting and commenting on causes quietly or aesthetically rather than appearing on magazine covers with “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” t-shirts or scribbling “Pro-choice” on their arms during unplugged performances.  Soundgarden’s “angst”, if they had any, was less an anxiety of choice between collusion and independence than it was an anxiety over the impossibility of negotiating the two.  Indeed much of their best work (“Black Hole Sun”, “4th of July”, “Jesus Christ Pose”, “Mailman”, “Nothing to Say”,  “Blow Up the Outside World”) was emboldened by a scorched earth nihilism, far closer to metal’s Lovecraftian take on power as a quasi-mystical evil force than punk’s mindset that it was something which could be urgently seized and redistributed.   Cornell’s hopelessness is everywhere across these early records, so news of his suicide should not be such a shock, though it’s no less tragic.



In a sense, it was good timing that the band dissolved in 1996 following the release of their decent but lacking final album (until their 2012 reunion).  It’s unlikely they would have rode out OK Computer and the electronica explosion of the following year well.  Cornell was really only primed for the grunge era and that era alone.  The slip into party music- raves, ska and pop punk, boy and girl bands- must have mystified the surviving grunge stars, who didn’t feel the ground shift in any tectonic positive way.  If anything, the society that they wanted to drop out of strengthened and tightened.  It was mainstream music fans that left them behind, which seemed to only prove Cobain and his cynicism right. 


Cornell’s attempt at a compromise for compromised times, Audioslave, wound up being a total bore, a middling shadow of both Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine, his backing band’s old act. The only time Cornell did branch out in new sonic directions he spectacularly failed, on 2008’s Timbaland-assisted Scream solo record, which received brutal jeers from critics, fans, and fellow musicians alike.  His iffy solo work followed, but largely as a retread, a tourism in past glories. The spectacular decade-long run from 1986 to 1996 though remains a pivotal time capsule showing how seamless energy could flow from a provincial urban scene into the mainstream. I bought Superunknown from a record store in Seattle in ’94 on a trip with my family when I was 12.  It was maybe the 6th or 7th CD I ever bought and it’s perhaps the only one from that time I still spin.  It doesn’t sound like now.  It still sounds like then.  But you can tell why then wanted it now.  




No comments:

Post a Comment