Chris Cornell: A spectacular voice of grunge, with a glint of tragedy

Chris Cornell: A spectacular voice of grunge, with a glint of tragedy
Chris Cornell. AP file photo

Chris Cornell: A spectacular voice of grunge, with a glint of tragedy

NEW YORK — Chris Cornell sang as if he were bearing the weight of the world.

Whether he was fronting the ferocious hard rock of Soundgarden or backed simply by an acoustic guitar, his voice — now silenced in a suicide — was spectacular by any reckoning. It was a voice that could sail above the grunge barrage of Soundgarden, with an attack to rival the band’s churning guitars; it was also a voice that gave modest acoustic ballads an existential gravity. At the bottom of its nearly four-octave range, Cornell’s voice was a baritone with endless reserves of breath and the seething tension of contained power. He couldn’t be more convincing than when he sang one of his definitive songs, Rusty Cage, with Soundgarden: “I’m gonna break my rusty cage and run,” he howled.

As it rose, higher and higher, Cornell’s voice could sustain a melody through the fray, or it could confront hard-rock turbulence with grunts, rasps, wails, bitter moans and, at the top of his range, full-bodied shrieks that admitted no weakness. Even when he was singing a long-lined melody like Black Hole Sun, another of his masterpieces, there was no comforting croon in his voice. It had a perpetually torn edge, a glint of tragedy.

Cornell could have used that remarkable instrument and his rock-star looks to play the standard heroic frontman: A chesty, cocky figure like two of his obvious influences, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and Paul Rodgers of Free. But he came from a later generation, one that had grown up on punk iconoclasm as well as metal virtuosity and that was far too self-conscious for the old rock machismo. As the main songwriter for Soundgarden — both on his own and supplying lyrics and melodies for other band members’ riffs — Cornell helped forge grunge: Rock that used all its power to question rather than to exult.

Each in its own way, the leading bands of grunge — Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains — found commercial traction with music that sabotaged older assumptions about rock. There was still plenty of aggression in the music, but it was directed inward as much as outward. Doubt could roil a song as intensely as rage. Soundgarden’s music bristled with dissonant riffs and shifting meters as Cornell belted blunt thoughts of resentment and despair: “I can’t get any lower/Still I feel I’m sinking,” he sang in Outshined. It wasn’t whining; it was back-to-the-wall fury.

In at least one important way, Cornell was an old-fashioned songwriter: He prized melody and had a gift for it. The majestic ballad Black Hole Sun, Soundgarden’s radio breakthrough and Grammy winner, was an atypical Soundgarden song because the band never besieges the melody. But even when Cornell’s voice is sparring with guitar riffs, as in songs like Spoonman or Jesus Christ Pose, he’s not just shouting or barking; he’s tracing larger shapes.

Soundgarden at its best was Cornell’s ideal vehicle because it gave his voice copious possibilities to grapple against. After the band dissolved in 1997, he persevered, working arenas as the songwriter and frontman for former members of Rage Against the Machine in Audioslave from 2001 to 2007, and also making solo albums. His voice stayed strong even as it aged, and he kept up his songwriting; he even got tapped for a James Bond theme, You Know My Name, from Casino Royale.

But Audioslave’s music was far more conventional hard rock than Soundgarden’s had been, and on solo albums, Cornell struggled to find the right context for his voice. He even tried highly processed and programmed Top 10-style pop, produced by Timbaland, on the widely reviled album Scream in 2009. His best setting on his own turned out to be as a guitar-slinging singer-songwriter. That’s the core of the dramatically swelling arrangement of a song he released this year, The Promise, an elegy that builds to lyrics that have now turned much darker: “A promise to survive/persevere and thrive/And rise once more.”

Soundgarden regrouped in 2010 and released an album of new songs, King Animal, in 2012; it had just performed Wednesday night (May 17) before Cornell died. Onstage and on albums, it seemed that the band had rekindled its old chemistry. Its final set ended with Slaves & Bulldozers, from its 1991 album Badmotorfinger — a heaving, bluesy, snarl building to a full scream, a song about honesty to the end. “Everything I said is what I mean,” the song insists. “Everything I gave is what I need.”


Beginning in the late 1980s, Chris Cornell, who has died at 52, was one of the most vivid frontmen in rock music, first with the grunge pioneers Soundgarden and later with the hard rock outfit Audioslave, with detours as a solo artist and as a founder of Temple of the Dog. Here are 10 of his essential songs, including aggrieved ragers and purpled ballads.


From the very beginning, Cornell was a rich yelper, with a voice like a jagged growl. Loud Love was one of the standouts from the second Soundgarden album, Louder Love. Cornell’s performance is all muscle, like a weight lifter doing intense reps.


Here was grunge in all its majesty and dolour. Cornell traded lead vocals with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder on this ambitious and affecting hit from the supergroup Temple of the Dog. Cornell’s verse is lovely, but when he answers Vedder’s low groan with high wails at the chorus, it’s chilling.


The opening song from Soundgarden’s breakout album, Badmotorfinger, shows Cornell in a slightly more relaxed mode. Over earthy heavy metal riffs, he sings with a seductive edge: “You wired me awake/And hit me with a hand of broken nails.”


Perhaps the first transcendent Soundgarden song, and one of the breakout moments for grunge, Outshined is crisp and elegant hard rock, and showcased Cornell at his most flexible, turning a brute force arrangement into a sort of dirty blues: “I just looked in the mirror/And things aren’t looking so good/I’m looking California and feeling Minnesota.”


On this lovely solo ballad from the soundtrack to the movie Singles, Cornell tempered agony with sweetness, hunger with reticence. “Dreams have never been the answer/And dreams have never made my bed,” he laments.


Into every successful hard rock band’s oeuvre, a little balladry must fall. Black Hole Sun — oozy, shimmery and in moments unexpectedly bright — imported some psychedelic twists into Soundgarden’s stern muscle. It became the band’s biggest hit, thanks to one of Cornell’s signature vocal performances, which was arrestingly drowsy, topped off with a few fiercely controlled shrieks.


Among the most bruising songs in the Soundgarden discography, Ty Cobb is a relentless punk attack, featuring Cornell at his most snarling and reckless.


At his best, Cornell sounded like the loneliest howler, the last man at the end of a dusty road. Burden in My Hand, another of Soundgarden’s biggest hits, has elements of country-rock sprinkled throughout. Cornell sings as if he’s staggering: “Just a burden in my hand/Just an anchor on my heart/Just a tumour in my head.”


This is among the softer of the singles from the first album Cornell recorded as the frontman of Audioslave, the band he formed with members of Rage Against the Machine. And yet it is one of Cornell’s most harrowing vocal performances, full of rank desperation and insistent defiance: “I am not your rolling wheels, I am the highway/I am not your carpet ride, I am the sky.”


For his third solo album, Cornell teamed with Timbaland for an often-bizarre set of songs. Of these, Ground Zero was among the least perplexing. Timbaland provided high-energy stutter-disco, and Cornell eased into his role as a funk-rock crooner. NEW YORK TIMES