The Flipside #5: Chris Cornell's 'Scream'
In 2009, Chris Cornell took the biggest risk of his career, and by most accounts he flopped spectacularly. But does Scream look any better in hindsight?
Sawdey: Time is finite, we are mortal, and death is inevitable. We get constant reminders of it all the time, but sometimes losing a pop culture icon opens our psychic wounds in unexpected, profound ways.
We connect with songs and movies and books and (yes) even sports on an emotional level, so to lose someone that affected so much of our lives means we suddenly feel cut off from someone whose public persona helped challenge and shape our creative minds. Their death often feels like we've lost a part of ourselves, leaving that spark that artist ignited in us now dormant.
To say that the passing of Chris Cornell's was seismic would be underselling it, as after spending the last few years losing everyone from David Bowie to Prince to Scott Weiland, Cornell's death was almost too much for some as the 52-year-old generation-defining rock voice still had a lot more to say. Perhaps the best summation of his talent came from Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington, who not only performed at Cornell's funeral but also, in a social media post, noted that "You have inspired me in many ways you could never have known. Your talent was pure and unrivaled. Your voice was joy and pain, anger and forgiveness, love and heartache all wrapped up into one. I suppose that’s what we all are. You helped me understand that."
Months later, Bennington would also take his own life at the heartbreaking age of 41, and despite being one of the most popular rock groups of the 2000s, only after we lost him did the magnitude of his accomplishments come to the fore. Both critics and casual fans had written of Linkin Park's later efforts as too pop-oriented and radio friendly, but the group still racked up album chart-toppers by the bushel, and in the wake of Bennington's passing, some did some hard reconsiderations of Linkin Park's stature and influence. Our dear friend and former PopMatters scribe Kiel Hauck summed it all up for It's All Dead: "Linkin Park would prove to be a gateway for me into heavy rock music. Chester’s screams weren’t grating -- they were comforting in their familiarity. Those words and that voice encapsulated feelings that I hadn’t been able to vocalize. A few years later, I cried in my car on a campus parking lot after purchasing Meteora from a local Wal-Mart on the day of its release. I can still vividly remember hearing Chester’s cries on the chorus of “Somewhere I Belong” for the first time that day. [...] Each time these kinds of tragedies strike, it’s a stark reminder to love those around us and talk to each other, even when it’s painful and uncomfortable. Remembering the music is easy. Reaching out for help or offering an ear can often be much harder."
So following the loss of Cornell, I was fascinated by a unique narrative that was coming up on social media posts: how boundary-pushing the former Soundgarden/Audioslave frontman was. While Cornell did pen the second-best Daniel Craig-era Bond theme and still contributed a long line of unexpectedly-fascinating pop songs for everything from the Singles soundtrack to his solo efforts, sometimes his earnestness lead him too far astray. There is nothing wrong with an artist wanting to experiment, but Cornell's dour reimagining of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" only proved that no matter how talented the artist is, few can cover Michael Jackson as effectively as (um) Alien Ant Farm.
Most curious of all, however, is that one time in 2009 when Chris Cornell released a dance album. Well, a dance/hip-hop hybrid. Kinda. Sorta. No one knew what to make of the fact that Cornell out of nowhere decided to make an album-length collaboration with the visionary rap producer Timbaland, but it didn't take long for the consensus to come in: this was an ill-fitting collaboration no matter how you cut it. As our own Bill Stewart noted at the time of release: "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."
So Brice, let's dive deep into the revisionist narrative and talk about the weirdness of Scream this week. Were you even aware of it when it came out? What were your initial thoughts on hearing that one of the inarguably greatest voices in all of rock music had made an album with Timbaland?
Ezell: Scream signals its own doom in the very first minute of "Part of Me", its opening number. Things kick off with an entirely superfluous synthesized orchestra that apes the effect of the 20th Century Fox title card. Then, apropos of nothing, a sitar moseys into the mix. Some distorted spoken word garbles atop the sitars. Forty-five seconds into "Part of Me", the actual music kicks in, a second cousin of Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack". If you didn't know the artist behind Scream, you'd certainly be able to identify Timbaland's production, but you'd have a way to anticipate hearing Cornell's iconic voice following the nonsensical teaser to "Part of Me".
Cornell's passing this year still hasn't sunk in with me. The fright-inducing number of significant musician deaths in the past two years proves hard to keep track of. It took reading your intro here to remind myself that Bennington left us not too long ago; that's how much that death still has to latch on to my memory. Growing up as a teenager in the early-to-mid aughts, my strongest connection to Cornell's music was and remains Audioslave. Hum the opening notes to "Doesn't Remind Me", and I'll join you immediately. By 2009, the time of Scream's release, I was exploring the musical subterranean, stuff thriving on the obscurity that Cornell by that time had long transcended. When, as I know now, Cornell accrued perhaps the worst reviews of his career for the FutureSex aesthetic of Scream, I was scrolling through the Sunn 0))) catalogue on my iPod classic. Oh, those days...
I'm glad you mention "You Know My Name", Cornell's excellent contribution to the James Bond franchise. Had I been keeping my ears out for Scream in 2009, my last memory of Cornell's music would have been "You Know My Name", a rarity in the Bond catalogue for its straightforward arrangements. The song does feature some horns and strings, but it avoids the grandiosity inherent to the Bond theme genre. It's just a simple, driving rock number with some effective lyrics that capture the themes of Casino Royale. I've never viewed Cornell as an auteur, high-concept guy. He has a great voice for rock music. Crank his vocals up over a mountain of distorted guitars, and you'll get a soaring, fist-pumping result.
For that reason, Scream feels like Cornell either forcing himself to be something he's not or attempting a sonic self-fashioning to keep his songwriting fresh. If he wanted to shock, he succeeded; there's a sizable list of producers useful to Cornell's sound that I'd scroll through before finding Timbaland. In fact, I'm not sure Timbaland would even make the list, even as an arch "but what if?" pick.
Now, I maintain that Steven Soderbergh's strongest movie is Ocean's Twelve and I think Led Zeppelin's In Through the Out Door ranks among the band's best. Which is to say, I'm all for revisionist takes on thoroughly reviled works of art. Yet no matter how I take Scream, it screeches like a train wreck. Am I not being generous enough?
Sawdey: Oh, you're being very generous.
Bear in mind: we have no qualms with Cornell's artistic merits, nor do we take issue with Timbaland's incredible sense of melody (to say nothing of his 50 Cent/Justin Timberlake collaboration "Ayo Technology", which features ping pong bounces as part of the beat and still stuns me to this day). The problem is that, as great as it seems on paper, this collaboration, plain and simple, doesn't work.
Rock artists have embraced electronic elements with success countless times over (if you disagree, you clearly haven't listened to Zooropa in awhile), but even outside of genre confines, the issue with this album lies with the songwriting, plain and simple.
Take, for example, "Sweet Revenge", in which a pretty annoying repeated single note strikes over a variety of synth gurgles and a chorus straight out of Britney Spears' Blackout, all while Cornell laments about ... fame? In the most cliched terms possible? It's sad but true:
I bet they won't stop till I quit
I bet they won't leave till I go
Ain't gonna hurt me a bit
One monkey won't stop the show
I've been through dirt and sand
Traveled to foreign lands
Been to hell and come back
I ain't gonna go there again
Why they wanna cause me to trip?
Why they wanna see me take a fall?
They wanna get something for nothing
Wanna see me jumping and running
Let me talk to the fans
Never gonna stop doing this
Till I'm deep in the ground
Come way too far to give in
While it's fine for fan service, these lyrics read a lot like Michael Jackson when he went aggressive, and a paranoid MJ made for great dance-pop psychodrama. This, meanwhile, sounds like Cornell just wants to bitch about something, but due to the lack of specificity, it's really hard to relate.
Sad as it is to say, however admirable his ambitions, Cornell is best when he's got a guitar in front of him, and while the occasional acoustic strums give a hint of gravitas, it's knucklehead robo-electric six-string vamps like "Climbing Up the Walls" that really give life to everyone's worst fears about this collaboration. It's not so much a trainwreck as it is a disappointment, the melding of these two artistic visions proving more bland than assertive, the production too polished to make a singer as gritty and soulful as Cornell to really land any of his vocal takes. As noted above, however, the lyrics aren't helping his cause either.
Normally, this is the time when, critically, I'd step back and say "Well, despite all of that, I do like X and Y and hint at what could be done" -- but I can't even do that here. While Timbaland has used Eastern sound and influences to great effect on, say, his Justin Timberlake productions, the time he uses it here on "Take Me Alive", the loops are too repetitious to develop a good groove, and the processed guitars of the chorus again point towards "here's what we think the kinds will like" versus anything approaching true enjoyability. So where do you think the fault in this record lies, Brice? Was this targeted towards an audience that doesn't exist or is this just a pop music robot built without a soul? More to the point, even if you agree with the latter point, are there glimpses of humanity found behind its cold LED eyes?
Ezell: I don't think Scream came about as a result of an imagined audience or of a robotic pop impulse. The logic behind the record, it seems to me, operates on the assumption that Cornell, whose established reputation in rock was unquestionable by 2009, needed to "branch out" in some way. Timbaland, who counts numerous successful '00s production gigs to his name, fits the "branching out" bill: he's not an obvious fit for Cornell's style, but he's also distinctive enough to push Cornell's songwriting in directions it might otherwise not go.
In this way, Scream commits the same folly that defines the menus at any Guy Fieri restaurant: confusing the preponderance of good things with a quality product. Sure, Cornell ranks high in contemporary rock royalty. Timbaland's production bonafides are never in question. But just because those two things have appeal doesn't mean that together -- along with all the other facets of this overstuffed hour of an album -- they cohere into a great LP. Fieri crams every stoner's dream of an ingredient list into his food, and the result is toxic. Timbaland went with every single choice in his production playbook, a strategy that is bound to drown out any artist, even one as experienced as Cornell. Scream is the Guy's American of 21st century music.
The crowded "Part of Me" works as a synecdoche for the failure of Scream, but "Give Up" also typifies Cornell's missteps here. Somewhere in the mix of that track exists a relatively plain rock number that, unadorned by Timbaland's production, could have been a solid chart single. But the most appealing feature of "Give Up", the chunky guitar riff that shows up almost as the song is completed, gets thrown in like an aside, rather than as a bedrock feature. The bulk of "Give Up" consists of Cornell trying to wring an R&B smoothness out of his voice that simply isn't there. Brightly colored, raindrop synth notes sprinkle the song, resulting in an aesthetic that only belongs in the kind of creepy club captured on the voyeuristic, if not outright predatory, music video to "Part of Me". "Give Up" contains good ideas that would work for a couple of different songwriters, but not Cornell.
The "glimpse of humanity" to which you refer, to my listening, happens only on the closing number and hidden track "Two Drink Minimum", whose awkward title (am I at the Laugh Factory?) belies the charm of the bluesy track. (For what it's worth, Cornell himself disavowed the title.) Minor key guitar licks and a tastefully used harmonica form an emotive background for Cornell's plaintive lyrics: "I"m lonely and thirsty / But it's better I stay dry / No more than two drinks away / From crying". Supposedly, John Mayer co-wrote "Two Drink Minimum", an oddball factoid that only contributes to the "too many cooks in the kitchen" problem that is Scream.
Sawdey: Well Brice, it was nice knowing you. I'm glad I got to interact with you and run this column with you before Cornell fans read that you compared him to Guy Fieri, soon leading to your public disembowelment. It was fun.
But I do push back a bit on the notion that the problem is that there too many cooks in the kitchen: the cooks are great, but make opposing styles of cuisine. Plus, it's obvious that Cornell himself got a little greedy, wanting to both have his cake and eat it too.
On one hand, his push towards pop, much less his unabashed love of "Part of Me" as a single, lead to, I found out, a remix EP that contained new iterations of the track by Steve Aoki, Kleerup, and the actual Guy Fieris of pop music: LMFAO.
However, just two years later, Cornell took the jittery bland pop of "Ground Zero" and, on his Songbook live album, actually converted it into a sturdy, considered, straight-ahead acoustic number. It works with the sparseness of his strums, and while no one at the end of the day is going to call it a truly great song, it has more emotional potency in this stripped-down version while also letting his voice truly get unleashed, revealing ferocity behind some of his more plaintive sentiments.
Yet the two-year gap is significant: if he did any of the Scream songs solo acoustic in that era, he would've been too close to them to transform them fully. Given a bit of age and some new wisdom about how to present them, a good deal of the songs here could very well have improved if given Songbook-like versions. Unfortunately, on that set, it's the only Scream song he bothered to revamp.
Now that onlookers and historians will be looking back on Cornell's body of work, Scream, unlike his woefully neglected solo debut set Euphoria Morning, may not be in need of critical evaluation. Favorably, it shows just how far he was willing to go outside of the expected arc of his career trajectory as a means to creatively rejuvenate himself, but in practical terms, there's no way to get around the fact that this was a woeful, critical misstep. I don't mind looking back on it as an oddball curiosity, but that is ultimately the only context I'll be looking back on it, as none of these songs really hold any weight with me some eight years after their initial release.
I'll leave the closing thoughts to you, Mr. Ezell. Where does Scream fall in Cornell's truly eclectic and fondly-remembered cannon?
Ezell: I totally endorse your observation about Songbook. Many of the songs on Scream, were they produced and arranged differently, would be either good or great. I still get the chorus melody to "Part of Me" stuck in my head sometimes, but when I listen to the song, I can't get past the faux-trailer intro, squelchy bassline, and misogynistic lyrics. The ideas behind the Scream tracklist are good, but they fell into the wrong sets of hands at the wrong time.
Since Cornell's passing, there have been a few reappraisals of Scream, the best of them being Andrew Karpan's for Popdust. (There's a far too adoring aside about Coldplay's terrible Mylo Xyloto in the piece, but I'll let bygones be bygones.) Karpan brings up the example of Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak, an initially controversial album that has since come to be considered a minor classic. While Karpan doesn't seem optimistic about Scream's chances for a critical second wind, he does make some interesting observations about what Scream does for Cornell's style. Timbaland and J. Roc's beats and production, writes Karpan, "forced [Cornell] to modulate his voice into shapes you won't ever find on a Soundgarden record." This effectively describes what happens when post-grunge meets electronics-heavy hip-hop on this LP: Cornell's voice gets stretched about like taffy, and is employed to greater effect than howling, for which he is best known. Reading Karpan's piece, I can understand why someone would find appeal in Scream for reasons like that, but I can't align my ears to that perspective. Scream certainly extends Cornell's vocal range, but it overstretches it in a way that doesn't befit him.
However optimistic Karpan is about Scream, he correctly suspects that the album won't ever make it out from under the negative critical avalanche it faced back in 2009. Cornell's death this year, as all musician deaths tend to do, led fans and critics to look back on his catalogue, and naturally, in the warm light of nostalgia, some once-lambasted works look deserving of a second chance. But remembering Cornell doesn't necessitate an upending of all consensuses about his discography. Great artists stumble, even if the cause of that stumble is ambition. Scream won't live on, but Cornell will.