From Garden to Higher Truth: The Legacy of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell

No matter what Chris Cornell did, there was always the sense that he was doing what he wanted.

“There must be something else / There must be something good, far away / Far away from here.”

— Chris Cornell, “Boot Camp”

Soundgarden was a seminal band, of course, grunge before grunge was a thing, and in its early days, too intense and dirty for all but the Seattle faithful. Chris Cornell was the driving force for that version of the band, as he always was for Soundgarden, and back then he was searching, finding something earnest, dark, and sweaty in the sound of what was still the hair metal boom of the late ’80s. What he found was a layered sort of angst, expressed almost exclusively through primal screams and howls. Those howls would quickly become his signature, even as he proved capable of so much more.

While Badmotorfinger was the purest vision of what had come before, it was Superunknown that really started to give us glimpses of everything Cornell had to offer; derided as it sometimes is as the sellout, the one where Cornell cut his hair and made a play for the mainstream, the sheer go-for-broke variety of it remains a wonder more than 20 years after its release. The bluesy baritone employed on songs like “4th of July”, “Like Suicide”, and, yes, “Black Hole Sun” offered a perfect counterpoint to Cornell’s ever-more-skillful screams, heightening their power by making them more than simply the default Cornell setting. While Superunknown‘s follow-up Down on the Upside might not have been able to reach its predecessor in terms of sales, its willingness to expand even further on Superunknown‘s already sizable palette was the mark of a band willing to take risks in service of a common artistic goal.

Or, perhaps, it was the mark of a band ready to splinter. Either way, it’s 16 tracks in service of songs as individual masterpieces, rather than a single album goal. Trying to take it in over the course of a single sitting is almost impossible, though each song has its own clearly-stated driving force and set of goals. In pieces, it’s every bit Soundgarden’s masterstroke.

That unwillingness to rest would follow Cornell through the rest of his career and its many twists and turns. The first thing he did post-Soundgarden was put out Euphoria Morning, a largely quiet and slow solo album that nevertheless offered some of the most soaring choruses of his career. Over and over again, the songs on Euphoria Morning are darkness turned to light, bud turned to blossom, and it wasn’t hard to see a parallel to an artist breaking fee of rock especially and the then-outdated “grunge” label in particular. The Chris Cornell of Soundgarden might never have recorded something like “When I’m Down”, but Cornell on his own could give it the soaring and heartfelt performance it deserved.

What felt like a detour with Audioslave turned out to be something more like a second career, a second band for Cornell to collaborate with, who could play his songs, who could add their own flavor to his work. Tom Morello turned out to be a particularly good fit, at least for a while. His uncharacteristically minimal touch on “Like a Stone” was a particularly inspired touch, while his howling guitars on “Cochise”, which introduced Audioslave to the world, nearly matched Cornell’s own howls, immediately establishing Audioslave as a force to be reckoned with.

Audioslave burned brightly and quickly, putting out three albums in five years before disbanding for good, leaving Cornell to his own devices once more. Again freed of the constraints of a band, Cornell went on to find himself again. Carry On is a perfectly serviceable if unspectacular solo effort, while Scream is a sometimes hilarious but always interesting collaboration with Timbaland that never quite soars to the heights one might have hoped.

It’s fitting, though, that Soundgarden would be Cornell’s last stop. Despite going far afield of rock’s comfort zone by doing things like covering Michael Jackson songs and recording “Ave Maria” for a Christmas album, despite the experiments with hip-hop and experiences with other creators, that voice was simply built for a muscular rock ‘n’ roll outfit like Soundgarden. It had been long enough that “grunge” had both burned out and faded away, and Soundgarden was defined only by their own history rather than that of their contemporaries. Best of all, Cornell could take the lessons he’d learned along the way, and just have some fun making music with his old mates. He had the freedom to make one more solo album, 2014’s Higher Truth, an album on which his voice was as strong and versatile as ever. He may not have been screaming as much as he used to, but his ability to find a power that most vocalists only strived for was still his greatest asset.

That last, of course, is what makes this feel like such a tragedy. As one of the survivors of the grunge era, there was a sense that Cornell had “made it”, that he was in the extended victory lap coda of his career. He was just supposed to go ahead and play the hits, misses, and everything in between until he was, oh, 80 or so, Mick Jagger style. You look at something like the video for “Jesus Christ Pose”, and you see someone who seems like more than a musician, more than human, just more. Even when his music was missing its mark, Cornell as a personality seemed unbound to the failings and trappings of this life. Cornell played a concert with Soundgarden the night of his death, and by most accounts, it was a concert like any other, a night like any other, a night when Cornell played the conquering hero and gave a typically sizable crowd exactly what it wanted.

There was no sense that it was the end of Cornell’s story. His place as a performer and as an influence on countless bands to follow has been cemented. Whatsoever we’ve feared has come to life. May he rest in peace.