Album Reviews

Chris Cornell – Songbook

(Universal) UK release date: 21 November 2011

Anybody reading this who has had the pleasure to witness Chris Cornell live will surely agree that the man has an astonishingly good voice. Not only that, but it can mould to a number of different styles, with doom-laden rock more recently giving way to an upbeat approach on his solo material, though that has itself become scattergun in its direction of late. Scream, his last album in 2009, was made with Timbaland, and was a hotchpotch of styles with some incredible singing. So what now?

A live acoustic album, that’s what – just the man, his guitar and an enthusiastic band of admirers who came to see him on a recent North American tour. The songs are drawn from a number of different stages in the singer’s career – Soundgarden, solo and Audioslave. The Cornell pipes are still in incredibly rude health, freely emoting as he describes the feeling of being “only two drinks away from crying” in As Hope And Promise Fade. His is a very believable voice, and works better without crowd pleasing histrionics. There are a few of those, but not enough to harm the overall impact – and in songs like Wide Awake you simply have to listen and wonder at the heights of his voice.

So why does it not fully work in this format? A big contributor is the layout of the collection, which sounds largely similar the whole way through, and there are times when you yearn for some guitar heft to complement the voice. The tempo choice, too, remains on the slow side. With less evidence of Cornell’s recent forays towards soul and R&B, the pitch is generally a safer rock one. Ground Zero, for example, is profound – but sits closer to the middle of the road. One that benefits from this approach is Can’t Change Me, one of Euphoria Morning’s best songs. Introduced by its singer as talking about a life “that goes on for a while and then you get to a point where you say, “Fuck it, I’m me!”, it works well.

The big draws are the Soundgarden numbers, but perhaps inevitably these are Fell On Black Days and Black Hole Sun, the first note of the latter drawing a primeval roar from the audience. Both translate very well to the acoustic idiom, but given the wealth of the available catalogue it seems almost a shame to focus on these two at the exclusion of the likes of Burden In My Hand, one of those songs where the Cornell lungs get a really good going over. More welcome is the Temple of the Dog song All Night Thing, powerfully sung.

There is a song that has “never been on anything”, according to its careful owner. Cleaning My Gun is softly sung with that slightly nasal tone that makes Cornell such a distinctive vocalist, and he opens up the throttle in the chorus to a full blown husk. The Keeper, meanwhile, is a new song that closes the collection, in a studio recording made for the Machine Gun Preacher film.

Cornell’s voice might not be as tight as it was back in 1994, but it remains a formidable instrument – and lifts this collection well above that of an average live album. It’s the lack of variety that stops it from becoming truly great.

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More on Chris Cornell
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Chris Cornell – Songbook
Chris Cornell – Scream