November 16, 2018 Chris Cornell – Chris Cornell (Box Set Review)
Back on May 18th of 2017, the music world lost one of its most unique and talented singer-songwriters with the untimely passing of Chris Cornell. A tragic loss, at only 52 years of age, Cornell’s death was ruled a suicide, leaving a massive hole in the heart of millions of dedicated fans.
Now over a year since Cornell has been gone, an expansive posthumous collection of his work, titled simply Chris Cornell, is due out on Friday, November 16, 2018 through Universal Music Enterprises. Produced by longtime collaborator Brendan O’Brien, with artwork from Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam, the release is available in several variants – the super deluxe box set which includes 64 songs across 4 CDs (or 7 LPs), 11 of which are previously unreleased, a 60-page booklet of liner notes, band photos, and production details; the more modest standard version includes 17 tracks, including two of those unreleased tracks; a live acoustic cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” as well as “When Bad Does Good,” an eerily prescient brand-new track handled entirely by Cornell himself. The super deluxe box set, which is being covered here, includes a DVD with 24 music videos, two of which are being released for the first time, an acoustic display of the solo track “Scream,” and an updated edit of the Soundgarden tune “Live to Rise,” without footage from 2012’s The Avengers, the film for which the song was written.
A whole lot of material to cover, lets get right down to it. To the casual fan, Cornell may be known more as a frontman, with his two main outfits, Soundgarden and Audioslave, and the tracklisting here reflects those extensive catalogs. Some may even reach as far back as Temple of the Dog, and that album is also well-represented. Where this compilation shines is the wide breadth of tracks from not only Cornell’s solo work, but his varied guest performances.
For example, two solo soundtrack efforts, “Seasons” from 1992’s Singles and “Sunshower” from 1997’s Great Expectations soundtrack, overlapped with his time in Soundgarden. Interestingly enough, the Soundgarden song “Birth Ritual” on the Singles soundtrack did not make this collection. This is while “Sweet Euphoria” and “Can’t Change Me” come from his first solo effort, Euphoria Morning, released in 1999, released after the Soundgarden breakup had cooled. Cornell’s solo output paused during his time in Audioslave, then resumed in 2007 with Carry On, prior to 2009’s Scream, the live collection, 2011’s Songbook, recorded during his acoustic tour of the same name, and finally, 2015’s Higher Truth, the latter most being his only solo album that was released while either of his larger “day-job” bands was technically active. The oft-maligned Scream makes a single appearance here with its airy title track, while Higher Truth is represented with “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart,” “Only These Words,” and “Our Time in the Universe.”
In addition to “Seasons” and “Sunshower,” his soundtrack output continued with “You Know My Name,” co-written with David Arnold as the theme song to the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale; the track also appeared on Carry On. Other soundtrack work included here is “The Keeper,” used in the 2011 film Machine Gun Preacher; “Misery Chain,” a duet with Joy Williams recorded for the 2013 12 Years a Slave soundtrack; “The Promise,” recorded for the 2016 historical film of the same name; and “Til the Sun Comes Back Around,” written/recorded by Cornell for 2016’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Alongside these tracks is the traditional “Ave Maria,” originally recorded with West Coast neighbors Eleven for 1997’s A Very Special Christmas 3, benefiting the Special Olympics.
As with most compilations of this size and scope, the songs appear largely in chronological order, though the dating usually applies to when the song was recorded, rather than written. Live acoustic versions of “Call Me a Dog” (from 1991’s Temple of the Dog) and “I Am the Highway” (from 2002’s Audioslave) are taken from Songbook, thus appear slotted with other work from 2011, rather than their original studio release, who have siblings earlier. This version of “I Am the Highway” almost sounds like Cornell covering himself in an entirely different style. Live full-band versions of “Mind Riot,” which originally was on 1991’s Badmotorfinger and appears here in a version released for that album’s 25-year anniversary, as well as “Nothing to Say,” which, along with box opener “Hunted Down,” dates to the 1987 debut EP Screaming Life, but the live version here comes from the Seattle version recorded for 2011’s Live on I-5. Additionally, “Jesus Christ Pose” is taken from that same live effort. Furthermore, “Reach Down,” the ten-minute epic from Temple of the Dog, makes an appearance as captured during the band’s reunion tour in November 2016. “Stargazer,” a Mother Love Bone song from their first and only album, makes an appearance here as well, recorded live during the same night from that reunion tour.
A very prolific artist, Cornell made numerous guest appearances over the years, from “Promise,” recorded with Slash for the latter’s self-titled album, to “Whole Lotta Love,” a Led Zeppelin cover recorded with Santana to open 2010’s Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time, a compilation album featuring covers of famous songs performed by Santana with a number of guest vocalists. Also making an appearance is “Lies,” recorded with Italian “New Jazz” band Gabin, for inclusion on their 2010 two-CD opus, Third and Double.
The covers here are hit-or-miss;”Into the Void (Sealth),” recorded live at the Paramount in Seattle, combines instrumentation faithful to the Black Sabbath original while replacing the lyrics with a speech attributed to Chief Sealth, namesake of the city of Seattle. One of the exclusive tracks, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” backed by Guitarist Keaton Simons and Cellist Bryan Gibson, is an incredibly strong track, as is “Redemption Song,” which, here, is welcomingly overpowered by daughter Toni Cornell on vocals. Then there is a “lighter” version of Temple of the Dog, dubbed M.A.C.C. (for Mike McCready, Jeff Ament, Matt Cameron, and Cornell, as Stone Gossard was missing), convened for “Hey Baby (Land of the New Rising Sun),” recorded for 1993’s Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Another strong cover is “Stay with Me Baby,” a soulful tune first recorded by Lorraine Ellison in 1966, and co-written by Jerry Ragovoy and George David Weiss; the version here was recorded for inclusion in the HBO drama Vinyl.
However, the recording of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” which first appeared on 2007’s Carry On, leaves a little to be desired; the slow acoustic beginning eventually bursts into electricity, but the powerful bombast of the original is left behind in a dark sea of noir. John Lennon’s “Imagine” also fails to hit the mark, this is while the legendary song may include the few vocal notes that Cornell is unable to hit convincingly. This is also while U2’s “One” also feels a bit out of place.
Moving along, “Wide Awake,” originally an Audioslave track, is given impressive acoustic treatment, and as with “I Am the Highway,” diverts a bit from the original. Penned in response to the destruction of Hurricane Katrina (both natural and man-made), the stripped instrumentation leaves Cornell to weave his agony into somber verses, high choruses, and a forceful close. Here, the track is followed by “All Night Thing,” originally part of Temple of the Dog but recorded during the same live acoustic set in Sweden as “Wide Awake.”
“When Bad Does Good” is the latest, and last, song of the compilation – it closes the single disc version, as well as the third disc of the deluxe box, before the live tracks begin to appear in earnest. The off-kilter church organ is outdone only by the chilling lyrics, “standing beside an open grave/ your fate decided, your life erased/ your final hour has come today/ lit by the fire of your temples burning.” It is crippling to hear someone so full of life sing about such deep, troubling times, mere months before meeting his own death, and his layered vocal choruses are both unsettling and calming as the track draws to a close.
Even given four discs’ worth of room, it is difficult to avoid noting the omission of some songs; “New Damage,” particularly the Brian May live version from Alternative NRG, feels like it would have fit here, as does “Toy Box,” which appeared in Say Anything, which is a strong example of the heavier aspects of Soundgarden’s early catalog. “Karaoke” is a song from the Down on the Upside sessions that counts neither as obvious nor obscure, but would fit here, as would “Applebite,” which Cornell once described as his favorite track on that album. From the dustier portion of the catalog, “Heretic,” either in its original version, or any of the cleaner later takes, could have a case. From the middle of the pack, “Mailman” (from Superunknown) and “Holy Water” (from Badmotorfinger) are great examples of Cornell at his most ‘unintelligible,’ at points, mixing his wide range with almost mumbled delivery. Two other slight omissions are “Bleed Together” and “Black Rain,” though they are easily found on other compilations.
With Chris Cornell sadly gone, a broad, loud voice has gone silent far too soon, and the track selections here span the breadth and depth of his immense work. Whether taken in one or two sittings, or spread out across several afternoons, the Chris Cornell box set is a noble effort that solidifies the amazing career of a talented vocalist, musician, and songwriter. The familiar radio tracks are buoyed by obscure takes and alternate versions that show how easily a breath and a scream could change the course of a song, an album, a concert. In addition to this career retrospective set, Cornell’s family recently announced a tribute concert scheduled for this coming January 16th in Los Angeles, titled I Am the Highway: A Tribute to Chris Cornell. Like the album, tickets go on sale November 16th. All this in mind, Cryptic Rock is pleased to award the Chris Cornell super deluxe artist legacy set 4.5 out of 5 stars.
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