Cornell didn’t start out on top. The early Soundgarden records, “Ultramega OK” and particularly their 1989 major-label debut, “Louder Than Love,” had their share of awkward moments, leaning sometimes towards some metallic clichés of the period. But as the nineties began, Cornell would find quickly find his soul and his voice.
In 1991 Cornell teamed up with members of Pearl Jam, some of whom had previously been in the band Mother Love Bone to pay tribute to that band’s lead singer, Andrew Wood, who had died the year before at the age of 24. The project would be named Temple of the Dog and would produce the hit, “Hunger Strike,” a song which featured some nice vocal interplay between Cornell and Eddie Vedder. (Over the years Soundgarden would have a strong, shared kinship with Pearl Jam. Since 1998, drummer Matt Cameron has been behind the kit in both bands.)
Around this time Soundgarden released “Badmotorfinger,” which would serve as the template for the successes that the band would continue to achieve on later releases. On songs like “Rusty Cage” and “Outshined,” Cornell kept his sense of fury that fueled the earlier records, but there was also a hint of nuance that began to sneak into the mix.
When “Superunknown” arrived three years later, it was immediately considered a rock classic by many. Whereas a lot of the earlier cuts were hard-hitting workouts, classics like “Black Hole Sun,” “Fell on Black Days,” “My Wave” and “The Day I Tried to Live,” could be stripped down to their essence while still holding their integrity. As he grew as a writer and a singer, he learned he didn’t have to always scream. In fact, “The Day I Tried to Live” in particular stands as one of the band’s mightiest and meatiest statements because not only does it take its time, but it shows that Cornell possessed just as much power as a vocalist, singing at a near whisper as he did when he was yelling.
Listening to the songs from 1996’s “Down on the Upside,” that range is still intact, from the now uncomfortably-titled “Pretty Noose,” to the downright bluesy “Burden in My Hand,” to the almost apathetic reading of the verse section of “Blow Up the Outside World.” Cornell quickly became one his generation’s best interpreters of emotional depth in song.
When Soundgarden essentially broke up after that album, it was hard to see where he would go. When he handed in the experimental but very classic-rock hued “Euphoria Morning” in 1999, it showed he was ripe to experiment with his vocal abilities and melodic range.
This experimental aspect of his approach also made him a perfect choice for three-quarters of Rage Against the Machine to pick when they were looking for a new vocalist, forming Audioslave. Cornell recorded three albums with them between 2002 and 2006 and his presence stretched them into more melodic areas than their Rage work, going from signature rockers like “Cochise” to more delicate singles like “Be Yourself.” The rollicking blues exercise of “Doesn’t Remind Me” still stands as a key highlight.
Cornell as a musician seemed to be open to just about anything. Sometimes this would cause him to stumble. His 2007 cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was popular but polarizing at best and when he teamed up with Timbaland for 2009’s “Scream” album, working hip-hop and electro-beats with his grunge-essence essentially removed, it resulted in a resounding thud. It may have failed for the most part, but it was still a worthy experiment.
Throughout his career, Cornell became increasingly open as a musician and perhaps finding out what didn’t work on “Scream” made Soundgarden’s comeback record, “King Animal” in 2012 that much better. That record and Cornell’s 2015 solo offering “Higher Truth” are among his most grounded and confident work. He could do so much with that amazing voice, but he needed time to reclaim his sense of soul.
Cornell brought a sense of craftsmanship to music that started out being strictly for head-banging. From “Badmotorfinger” onward, when he rocked out, you still listened to his words. When he went a mellower direction, you heard every bit of emotion in his vocal tone.
At the time of his death, Soundgarden was back in action and on tour. There was talk about new music being made. In March, Cornell released a solo single, the title-track theme to the Oscar Isaac-starring film “The Promise,” a movie about the Armenian genocide. It’s a slightly haunting yet uplifting ballad. It may prove to be his last single.
By coincidence, tomorrow, the 1992 soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s iconic film “Singles” gets a double-disc reissue. The album features Soundgarden and a number of Chris Cornell solo tracks.
The loss of Chris Cornell leaves a massive void in the rock world. He was a one-of-a-kind, ground-breaking presence. Today as the tributes poured in, you could tell he was loved and important to a wide variety of fans and friends. This is a loss that hits the music community across all genres like a brick. Vocally and as a writer he earned every bit of respect he received. He will be greatly missed.