[3 October 2007]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Chris Cornell is so much better off alone. Really.
Take, for example, his first go-around with Seattle grunge-rock mainstays Soundgarden in 1984. While riding the coattails of what turned out to be just another fad in the ever-so-frivolous world of music, Cornell’s first band was enshrined in the mundane world of plaid-rock with such memorable sleepers as “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman”.
Then came the all-star gala that was Temple of the Dog. While this project combined the limited talents of Cornell, Eddie Vedder, Matt Cameron, and Stone Gossard (any Seattle kid’s wet dream), it never found its way out of obscurity and into any teenager’s empty heart, or record collection for that matter.
And finally, there’s Audioslave. Again, something of a modern-rock supergroup forming in 2001, though it looked awfully good on paper, the combination of Cornell’s crooning and the Machine’s talents never quite lived up to what every alternative rock-music-listening junkie ever hoped for.
Really. Chris Cornell is better off alone.
Even his first solo release, 1999’s Euphoria Morning, peeked at hints of greatness and actual intrigue at times. Songs like Temple’s “Hunger Strike” and Soundgarden’s “Pretty Noose” couldn’t hold half of a candle to Morning lead single “Can’t Change Me”’s eerie feel and odd time signature. The performance itself simply felt much more liberating than anything any of his other projects have ever produced.
Which is perhaps why he opted to leave the world o’ modern rock group again with his second official full-length solo release in almost a decade, Carry On. Here, Cornell shines brighter than ever by ditching the watered-down sound of modern rock and giving the nod to something a little more accessible, and a lot more interesting.
“She’ll Never Be Your Man” is a pleasantly confusing love-torn tale that proves to be indicative of Cornell’s choice to pop things up throughout his latest effort. As the acoustic guitars and tambourines color in the backdrop, the almost-kind of twang-y hook and Cornell’s half-snarl suggest that a tiny bit of southern rock probably influenced this track, if not the entire record.
Then, songs like “Finally Forever” and “Killing Birds” prove to be how good everyone wanted Soundgarden to be. Two of only four tracks on Carry On that feel like they could have fit on a Soundgarden release, these two songs showcase the man’s powerful vocal ability in front of the lackadaisical guitar work that made Cornell’s first band so popular.
But Carry On is at its absolute best when Cornell visibly sheds any aforementioned desire to continue as a hard-rock artist. “Arms Around Your Love”, the best piece of songwriting Cornell has ever been a part of, is a three-and-a-half minute pop-rock single that needs to be everybody’s favorite guilty pleasure. The blatant pop-rock acoustic guitar backdrop and catchy electric hook make this song a damn good play for pop-radio domination. While he has never seemed any more generic, he has never sounded any better.
The only blemish throughout this colorful painting comes when Cornell tries something he obviously wasn’t sure he should do in the first place: A crack at Michael Jackson’s super-duper-mega-hit “Billie Jean”. While the performance itself feels forced and stiff, Cornell’s arrangement is sobering at best. It simply never picks up, making the song a harsh reminder that, yes, he can still be humdrum.
But one slip-up out of 14 opportunities really isn’t bad. Even songs like the predictable “Safe and Sound” and the Audioslave throw-away “Poison Eye” aren’t just not bad, but really kind of good. Before “Safe and Sound”’s balladry qualities become watered down, Cornell surprisingly takes a hold of the performance and commands attention with what turns out to be a shockingly soulful performance (the horn section helps too). “Poison Eye”, a song that may have fit better on his latest band’s second release, is more than tolerable and certainly more advanced than what Rage Against the Garden was ever going for. It keeps Cornell’s aggressive side intact enough to not override the idiosyncratic maneuvers his band displays.
And maybe that’s his secret. The common denominator in all of Cornell’s solo ventures lies within the limitations he puts on his insistent qualities, and that’s a good thing. Because with Carry On, an effort that shows exactly how simple and light Cornell can go, he proves that sometimes being alone isn’t all that bad.