Any discussion of Chris Bell is incomplete without mentioning Big Star. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Bell helped form the short-lived, highly influential Memphis-based power pop band and shared songwriting duties with Alex Chilton on the band’s 1972 debut album, #1 Record. While Big Star were never an enormous commercial success, they received truckloads of accolades — once accurately described as “the missing link between the Beatles and the Replacements” — and have influenced countless artists, including Afghan Whigs, Wilco, R.E.M., Matthew Sweet, and Cheap Trick. The latter band even helped nudge Big Star into mainstream pop culture when their cover of “In the Street” was used as the theme song for That ’70s Show.
Bell left Big Star after the release of #1 Record and while he struggled with drug and alcohol abuse as well as clinical depression, he kept his creative juices flowing, writing and recording new music in the mid-’70s in Memphis as well as at the famed Chateau d’Herouville studio in France (where everyone from Bad Company to Iggy Pop to Elton John has recorded). While a single, “I Am the Cosmos” b/w “You and Your Sister”, was released in 1978, Bell never lived to see a bona fide full-length solo album, despite shopping the remaining songs around various uninterested labels. He was killed in a car crash on December 27 of that year at the age of 27.
It wasn’t until 1992 — no doubt spurred on by the enormous street cred Big Star had received through praise from a variety of influential artists — that the remaining songs from Bell’s mid-’70s creative output were released by Rykodisc as I Am the Cosmos. An expanded edition, more than doubling the track listing of the original release, came out in 2009 on Rhino’s Handmade imprint. Now, as part of Omnivore Recordings’ 2017 celebration of all things Chris Bell (including a collection of 1969-71 recordings, Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star, released in July), a newer expanded version of I Am the Cosmos is now available, which includes the bonus material found on the 1992 release and 2009 reissue. Also included are ten more tracks, eight of which are previously unissued, and two make their CD debut. The new collection is also available on vinyl (of just the original album tracks, but includes a download card for all 35 tracks), and the requisite “expanded liner notes” are included.
Needless to say, it’s a good time to be a Chris Bell fan. This is also a goldmine for Big Star fans: while it’s clearly a Chris Bell solo album, there’s no mistaking the Big Star “sound”. As the title track would have you believe, there’s certainly a fair share of navel-gazing going on, but if you’re pining for the catchy, guitar-driven power pop that was Big Star’s bread and butter, you’ve come to the right place. Songs like “Get Away”, “I Got Kinda Lost”, and “Make a Scene” marry chunky, irresistible guitar riffs with memorable melodies. When Bell shifts gears with the gorgeous acoustic-based “You And Your Sister”, it still evokes memories of his former band, sounding like a close cousin of “Thirteen” from #1 Record (it’s worth noting that the single was recorded circa 1975 at Bell’s old stomping grounds of Ardent Studios in Memphis and features former bandmate Chilton on backing vocals, so it serves as a bit of a mini-reunion).
But it’s also important to note that Bell was moving far beyond a lot of the sound that gave Big Star so much acclaim. Befitting its title, “Speed of Sound” has a spacey, almost otherworldly quality, acoustic guitars anchoring down the recording while light percussion and an undercurrent of quiet guitar leads float all around before Bell’s interstellar Moog solo provides a sharp, elegant contrast. The title track is a lush, relaxed album opener with dense instrumentation that sounds inspired by some of Phil Spector’s best production work. “Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos,” Bell sings. “I am the wind / But that don’t get you back again.”
It’s not surprising that these songs were recorded over a relatively extended period. The lengthy gestation period seems to have given the songs plenty of breathing room. Bell appears to be in little to no hurry while his muse guides him. Songs like “Fight at the Table” unfold in an almost desultory manner, beginning with some bluesy noodling before the piano-led boogie of the song gets underway. “Though I Know She Lies” also meanders through the different influences Bell soaked up through the years. Sounding for the most part like a mid-tempo Cat Stevens ballad, the song takes odd detours at about the halfway mark, complete with jazzy chord structures perfectly complimenting an unexpected yet welcome slide guitar solo.
As far as Bell’s post-Big Star spiritual explorations go, it’s hard to pin down exactly how much it affects I Am the Cosmos, as the lyrics seem to avoid specifics. “Better Save Yourself” may serve as a cautionary tale from someone who’s experienced emotional — and chemically fueled — ups and downs. The gentle, emotional “Look Up” could indeed be interpreted as embracing faith: “Look up / Look up / You’ll see the sky / Look up / Look up / He’s the life / Waiting to love you / Wanting to reach you.” Then again, maybe he just likes the great outdoors. It’s hard to tell, nearly 40 years after his death, what exactly Chris Bell was searching for. The music provides clues, but nothing definitive.
The bonus tracks that follow the album proper are of the usual “deluxe edition” variety, but for someone with Bell’s limited solo output, they’re a treasure to explore. For example, three additional versions of the title track provide a fascinating glimpse of the song’s progress over the years. A “country underdub” version of “You and Your Sister” offers a more intimate version of the original (minus Chilton’s contributions) but a small string section gives it emotional heft without sounding corny. Plenty of instrumental backing tracks are also available, providing an insight into Bell’s creative process. A couple of noteworthy collaborations are also available in this deluxe set: “Stay With Me” is a sublime country-rock number featuring Keith Sykes, in whose band Bell toured and recorded, and includes a searing guitar solo from Bell. The ballad “In My Darkest Hour” pairs Bell with fellow Memphis musician Nancy Bryan in an intimate and lyrical setting from 1972.
The liner notes are expansive and a must for anyone looking for background information on Chris Bell (it’s also worth mentioning that the 2012 Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me is essential viewing). Music critic Bob Mehr, author of the Replacements biography Trouble Boys, contributes a lengthy, informative essay, and Alec Palao, who compiled the Looking Forward set, also provides extensive track notes.
“It’s taken decades,” Mehr writes in the liner notes, “but Bell has finally earned the acclaim that so eluded him in life.” Let’s hope so. Exploring the music of Chris Bell is a fascinating journey, and I Am the Cosmos is the perfect roadmap.