There are few voices in rock that are quite as distinctive as Chris Cornell‘s. It is a vocal that has been around for almost three decades, ever since the 51-year-old made his name as the frontman of Soundgarden, and it has continued to serve him well with his subsequent solo projects and with Audioslave, the band he formed with members of Rage Against The Machine.
In fact, it was largely down to the American’s gritty, powerful vocal that he was given the prestigious gig of singing the Bond theme for Daniel Craig’s first appearance as the character in 2006’s Casino Royale. Unfortunately for Cornell, though, even his signature vocals could not prevent his last solo record, 2009’s Scream, from being critically savaged as he attempted to branch out into R&B by recruiting the help of Timbaland.
While Scream may have been his highest charting solo record to date, it was quite horribly misjudged. Six years has passed since Cornell released his third solo LP – during which time there has been a Soundgarden reunion and his critically-acclaimed live solo album and tour – but he is now back doing what he does best, with his new record Higher Truth demonstrating that he could easily get by on simply his voice alone.
Produced by Brendan O’Brien (Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Neil Young), the album sees Cornell go back to basics and rip up the blueprints of its over-produced predecessor. Opener Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart quickly establishes the direction of Higher Truth, with its stark mandolin riff gradually building towards its fist-pumping chorus. It is clear from the off that the success of the stripped-back Songbook has had a strong influence on his fourth studio LP.
This is certainly the case with Dead Wishes, which relies largely on a sweetly plucked acoustic guitar and Cornell’s comforting vocals, while Worried Moon is even more restrained before it kicks into gear on the chorus. In the lead up the Higher Truth’s release, Cornell spoke about being inspired by artists such as Nick Drake and it is undoubtedly a comparison that feels fitting as the record progresses. Delicate acoustic ballad Josephine is further proof of this relaxed and unfussy sound, although it does showcase the occasionally formulaic lyrics (“My sweet Josephine/ won’t you come and marry me?”). Before We Disappear is better, with its wistful guitar melody eventually providing the basis for one of the catchiest, sing-a-long choruses on the record, as Cornell belts out: “How hard can it be/ to share your love with me?”
As good as Cornell sounds with just a lightly strummed guitar for accompaniment, the lack of variation on Higher Truth does mean that it becomes somewhat predictable around the halfway mark. Tracks such as Murder Of The Blue Skies and the title track fall a bit flat by the time they come around – even if the former does briefly pick up with a guitar solo – while closer Our Time In The Universe sounds like it belongs to a different album entirely.
That said, there is plenty to like about Cornell’s solo return. Take the beautiful fragility of Let Your Eyes Wonder and Only These Words, which are both drastic improvements on anything from Scream. It wouldn’t be all that surprising if the reason Cornell waited six years to follow up his third solo album was in hope that many would have forgotten it ever existed in the first place. Higher Truth may not quite reach the heights of his best work, but it ensures that Scream was no more than a blip in his solid back catalogue.