There are still people out there who don’t take popular music seriously. To them, it’s something frivolous and simplistic, pleasant in the same crude and mindless way as scratching a mosquito bite, an underdeveloped form of “art” that deserves no more serious inspection than an eight-year-old’s drawing of a zombie fighting a robot. And as much as these self-righteous ignoramuses deserve to be abhorred, as much as popular music has tangibly enriched my own life — and assumedly your life, if you’re taking time out of your day to read this review — after listening to Chris Cornell’s Scream, I have to grudgingly concede to them: Ok, yeah, you guys have a point. Popular music can be pretty fucking dumb.
Scream — the result of a collaboration between Cornell and omnipresent producer Timbaland — is the ultimate example of popular music not as an art form, but as a consumer product to be shelved next to the novelty t-shirts in Spencer’s Gifts. It’s sleek and club-ready, has spawned five singles before its official release, and has absolutely no artistic aspirations beyond chart-topping success.
It’s interesting and unsettling, then, that this album ostensibly comes from a man (“ostensibly” because every song here seems to have no less than four writing credits) who, in his prime, helped alternative music find a place in the mainstream consciousness. Listening to Soundgarden and their other grunge contemporaries today reveals something that remains vital: a remarkable balancing act between pop sensibility and underground grit, an instantly accessible sound that at the same time made few artistic compromises. And while Cornell, from his work with Audioslave onward, has been moving in an increasingly conservative, blandly inoffensive direction, I don’t think many could have predicted this blatant and embarrassing grab for mainstream relevancy. I don’t use the term “sell out” often, but yeah, you know.
Cornell, ironically given the album’s title, sings in a smooth R&B croon for nearly the entirety of Scream. On paper, such a deviation from his usual raspy blues-inflected performance reads like it might be refreshing, perhaps even revitalizing for the aging rocker. In practice, it irons out the rough edges, ticks, and vulnerabilities that made his work with Soundgarden, and to a lesser extent Audioslave, so charismatic. If you can manage to sift through all the trite studio effects and insane vocal multitracking that makes Queen look downright conservative, then you’ll see a Cornell that at least seems comfortable in his new persona, practiced and professional — but in the same banal, uninteresting, and unthreatening way that the manager at your local Cinnabon might seem practiced and professional.
Speaking of unthreatening professionalism: Timbaland. At this point in his career, his handful of past critical successes seem to stem from the fact that he’s, well, everywhere, and with that much prolificacy going on he’s bound to hit on the correct formula every now and then. Needless to say, that never happens on Scream. Instead of doing something interesting like exploring the intersection between Cornell’s rock guitar and electronic music, he cordons anything that wouldn’t fit comfortably in your local douchebag-frequented club to marginalized interludes between tracks — which, of course, end up being generally more interesting than the tracks themselves. There’s nothing here as audacious and attention-grabbing as that Gregorian chant from “Cry Me a River”, there are countless formulaic and tacky orchestral flourishes, and the only moderately interesting bits of the album — an overblown intro, the electro house conceits of “Part of Me”, and the Middle Eastern instrumentation that drifts through “Take Me Alive” — find Timbaland reprising tricks he’s long ago added to his repertoire.
What we get when we put the pieces together: an album where every single song is approximately the same length; an album where you could take apart any one track, combine those segments with other stray bits of the album, and still have the same basic entity you started with; an album whose choruses consist of phrases like “No, that bitch ain’t a part of me” repeated eight times; an album that, above all else, does not want you to think about it too hard.
If you against all common sense do decide to dive in, though, you’ll find at least one moment that’s weirdly affecting: at the 4:08 mark on penultimate track, “Climbing Up the Walls”, we unexpectedly hear a distant, lo-fi recording of Cornell with his acoustic guitar. He sounds fragile, ragged, weary. An artist perhaps dimly intuiting that time is, even as he’s strumming, dragging him further and further away from a time when he mattered.