A lovingly compiled new box set pays tribute to the understated versatility of the late Chris Cornell
It would be nicer if there was another reason for this set’s existence. Instead, a year and a half after his death in May 2017, Chris Cornell is a memorial to a fallen talent, and a potent reminder of (or an introduction to) just how broad that talent actually was.
Cornell’s legacy would be guaranteed if he’d only been in Soundgarden (and there’s undoubtedly a Rock Hall induction in their future). But there was also a solo career, his time in Audioslave, and numerous side projects, such as Temple of the Dog, surely the most heartfelt tribute group ever put together to honor a departed friend. Chris Cornell covers all these aspects, from the obvious inclusions to the less expected (and about a quarter of the tracks on the deluxe and super deluxe editions are previously unreleased)
The set fittingly opens with “Hunted Down,” Soundgarden’s first single, released on Sub Pop in 1987. Cornell’s voice isn’t yet soaring into the stratosphere (that would come soon enough), but it’s still a strong, confident performance by a band whose only previous recorded appearance was three tracks on the legendary Deep Six compilation. That record, released on C/Z Records the previous year, captured the early stages of the developing Seattle/Pacific Northwest alternative music scene; “a snapshot before things got out of control,” in the words of Daniel House, who appeared on Deep Six as a member of Skin Yard and went on to take over the label. By the late ’80s, those with their ears to the ground knew something exciting was brewing in the region.
Hard as it may be to understand, as Soundgarden moved up to the majors there was some confusion about how to best describe (and thus market) them; they weren’t obviously “metal,” but “alternative rock” hadn’t yet become a catchphrase. That’s precisely why the self-titled Temple of the Dog album sank like a stone on its first release in April 1991; who knew what this stuff was? Or who the musicians were?
The side project band was instigated by Cornell, who’d written songs in tribute to his friend Andrew Wood, lead singer of Seattle band Mother Love Bone, who’d died of drug-related causes in March 1990. MLB had been on the verge of releasing their major label debut, following in their friend’s footsteps (Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love had come out on A&M the previous year). Chris Cornell features “Say Hello 2 Heaven” from the album, Cornell’s immediate response to his former roommate’s death. It’s an incredibly moving song about loss, the lyrics laced with the same kind of sadness that would later surface in Cornell’s “Fell on Black Days” and “Black Hole Sun.” The also features “Hunger Strike,” its lead vocal shared with another musician the surviving MLB members were working with in their follow up band, Pearl Jam; Eddie Vedder. Following Pearl Jam’s breakthrough with Ten, came the realization that Temple of the Dog featured a veritable grunge supergroup, drawn from the ranks of what were now the hottest bands in the country; the album went on to sell over a million copies.
You get a number of Cornell’s signature songs — “Jesus Christ Pose,” “Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman,” “Show Me How to Live” — but one of the pleasures of this box is that it also digs deeply into forgotten corners. Who remembers that Cornell (alongside Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, and Matt Cameron) contributed “Hey Baby (Land of the New Rising Sun)” to the 1993 tribute album Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix? Or that he powered his way through “Whole Lotta Love,” with Santana, on 2010’s Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time? There are other intriguing cover songs throughout the set. Cornell told Rolling Stone he chose to cover “Billie Jean” precisely because it was such an unexpected choice. There’s also has a live version of “Imagine” (far more bluesy than the original), and previously unreleased live versions of “Nothing Compares 2 U” (a song tailor made for Cornell’s expressive voice) and a mighty performance of “A Day in the Life.”
One CD in the deluxe/super deluxe editions is devoted to live tracks, creating a concert spanning the years 1992 to 2016. Perhaps coincidentally, the songs from those two years are both from Seattle dates. From March 6, 1992, Soundgarden gives Black Sabbath’s “Into the Void” a Seattle spin, dropping in new lyrics inspired by a speech attributed to Chief Sealth (“The white man won’t notice the air he breathes”). The 2016 songs are from a Temple of the Dog reunion that dropped in on Seattle on November 20 and 21; they were Cornell’s last dates in the city, something that gives a lyric like “Cry for me and rub it in” (from “Stargazer”) a new poignancy when you hear it today.
And there’s much more to (re)discover in this set; Cornell’s stunning vocal on “Ave Maria,” from a Christmas compilation, for example. The deluxe and super deluxe sets also come with a book filled with photographs and remembrances from Cornell’s fellow bandmates. Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil lists the “traits of creativity” that he found were “particularly pronounced with Chris Cornell: curiosity, independent mindedness and rebelliousness, sensitivity, expressiveness, a solid work ethic but also playfulness, a sense of humor, risk taking, and with it, a degree of courage.” In his own piece, Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello neatly summarizes what we lost, and what will always be remembered: “Thanks Chris for your beautiful voice, your friendship and all the world crushing songs”
(A memorial concert, “I Am The Highway: a Tribute to Chris Cornell” is scheduled to be held on January 16, 2019 at the Forum in Los Angeles; participants will include members of Cornell’s bands, Foo Fighters, Metallica, and Ryan Adams, among others)