Chris Cornell is so comfortable and so talkative
during interviews that there's almost no need to ask him questions.
You just get on the phone and he essentially conducts the conversation
for you, answering any question you intend to pose before you get a
chance to ask. It's a little creepy, actually, sometimes giving the
impression that Cornell is mildly psychic (that his speaking voice resembles
Christopher Walken's only completes the effect).
Cornell's sixth sense sure comes in handy, though,
especially when it saves you from having to bring up awkward topics.
In this case, the elephant in the room was Cornell's latest solo album,
Carry On. The album has attracted mostly cold reviews from critics and,
more troublingly, indifference from many of his oldest fans (the Internet
is full of surprisingly rational, dispassionate reviews where fans explain
how they love Cornell but lament that this disc just doesn't do it for
them). It'd be a real conversation killer if I had to ask about this
directly, but thankfully I don't have to. Unprompted, Cornell posits
a theory about the album's chilly reception.
"I think there's a prejudicial thing going on with
me right now," he speculates, "since I'm known almost entirely as someone
who has fronted a band, different bands. The genre of hard rock is what
I'm known for, and there aren't a lot of solo artists in that genre.
"I think some people's brains stop working when
it comes to the subject of a singer they're used to being in a band
suddenly not being in a band anymore," he adds. "They'll ask questions
like, 'How do you make a record alone?' as if nobody has ever been a
solo artist before, or as if I didn't write almost every single Soundgarden
radio song by myself."
Better known for his work with Soundgarden, Temple
of the Dog and Audioslave than as a marquee name on his own, Cornell
resents being pigeonholed as a performer who can only work collaboratively
with bands, and he sounds more than a little defensive about his legacy.
"In a sense, Temple of the Dog was kind of a solo
record because I wrote most of the songs entirely alone," he says at
one point (again unprompted). These are my songs, he's saying, and damn
it, I want the credit for them.
While Cornell concedes that he's considered a hard-rock
performer, he's not happy about it. He says he's been saddled with that
stigma since Soundgarden first signed to a major label in 1989.
"[A&M Records] didn't really know what to do with
us, so they publicized us in magazines, print press and television as
commercial heavy metal," he recalls. "Even the Grammy I won for 'Black
Hole Sun'"—note how he says "I" and not "Soundgarden" here—"was Best
Metal Performance. 'Black Hole Sun' really has nothing to do with heavy
metal that I can think of. So I could see the confusion from the very
beginning of our major label career.
"I've been sort of battling the whole genre issue
since I've been making records, really," he continues. "I always felt
like I should be like the Beatles and just do what I want. If they can
do 'Yesterday' and 'Helter Skelter,' then I should be able to do the
And so the stifled singer branched out considerably
on his latest disc, much to many fans' disappointment. Carry On largely
tempers the heavy grind of Cornell's past bands in favor of softer singer-songwriter
reflections and stabs of studio-polished rhythm and blues.
By Cornell's own admission the album has no underlying
concept—it's just a set of songs he enjoys singing—so it's not surprising
that it sounds disjointed. The rock numbers fair well, especially when
they showcase Cornell's explosive vocal range, and the closer, "You
Know My Name," from Casino Royale, sounds less overblown than it did
in the film. But the tortured, coffeehouse cover of Michael Jackson's
"Billie Jean" is nothing short of bizarre, and Cornell's newly sunny
predisposition (he's now sober, and living in France with his wife,
who he loves very, very much) simply doesn't lend itself to the same
thrills as the grungy despondence that drove his early '90s work.
On some level, though, perhaps the reason Cornell's
fans have rejected the album is that it reflects the "American Idol"-ification
of rock music. Fox's hit talent search now regularly features rockers
(you can tell they're rockers because of how they groom themselves)
proving they have pop-chart potential by singing all sorts of genres
that have little to do with rock—which is pretty much what Cornell does
here. Although still clad in angst-ridden, rock-star black, now he's
singing overproduced soul numbers, torch songs and, for some reason,
a Michael Jackson cover. The Soundgarden frontman has recorded what
might as well be a Bo Bice album.
First published online at Shepherd