With a voice that could stir honey into tea from the next state over, songwriting chops more mercurial than a two-year-olds mood and a quintessential chisel-jawed rock ‘n’ roll look so on the money that it would come up on clipart if you searched for ‘guitar player’, Chris Cornell was a paradigm of nineties alternative music. Through a range of various outlets, he established himself as a key figure in the grunge movement.
“I’m not a lyric writer to make statements,” he once said, “What I enjoy doing is making paintings with lyrics, creating colourful images. I think that’s more what entertainment and music should be.”
With that introspective ethos, he rose to fame with Soundgarden, before working on solo material and forming Audioslave after Zack de la Rocha left Rage Against the Machine as well as being a part of the supergroup Temple of the Dog.
His rise in music may have been profound but it was a passion forever underscored by darkness. When he was only 12 years old, he suffered from depression and rarely left the house. This issue was confounded further still by the fact that he was exposed to alcohol, marijuana, LSD, mushrooms and prescription drugs which he was taking almost daily by the age of 13. This damaging mix of substances led to panic disorder and agoraphobia.
He sought solace in music, and it was indeed a passion that would offer deliverance and a future for him, but tragically he would end his own life on the 18th of May 2017 at the age of 52. This catastrophic end to his life has coloured his legacy thereafter with an aura of sadness and begs the question of whether more could’ve been done.
What remains and serves as the obverse to this tragic end is his music that brought joy to so many fans. Below we’re looking at six tracks that help to define his diverse and always profound output, whether it be in visceral rousing epics or softer folk-like refrains akin to the work of his friend Jeff Buckley.
If you’re new to one of the Seattle scenes most iconic performers, then these songs serve as the best entry points to tackle the back catalogue.
The six definitive songs of Chris Cornell:
‘Beyond the Wheel’ – Soundgarden (1988)
Every musical movement appears to have burst out of nowhere in retrospect but there is always a hint of feat finding before someone seizes the mantle. The Seattle grunge scene was no different and Soundgarden’s 1988 debut Ultramega OK doesn’t quite race out the traps, but it does enough moshing to have stirred something up.
Cornell said, “We made a huge mistake with Ultramega OK because we left our home surroundings and people we’d been involved with and used this producer that really did affect our album in a kind of negative way.” That much is self-evident in the grandiose elements that disavow what they had previously been about while gigging, but with ‘Beyond the Wheel’ the pioneering sound can still be detected in a loud blur of something ineffably new.
‘Call Me a Dog’ – Temple of the Dog (1991)
Temple of the Dog came together to pay tribute to the band’s late friend Andrew Wood, the former lead singer of Mother Love Bone. With that sombre inception, a more introspective style was to be expected. With ‘Call Me a Dog’ the band purr with stirring profundity.
The slower tempo and reverberating guitar tones allow Cornell to show the depth and precision of his vocal skills beyond his rafter rattling howl. Capturing a timeless classic rock vibe, the track saunters like a long drive reminisce, with a scintillating guitar solo to boot.
‘Black Hole Sun’ – Soundgarden (1994)
By the time that Soundgarden’s fourth studio album came around the Seattle global takeover was well and truly in full swing. Thus, it wasn’t all that easy to topple the budding status quo with yet another grunge anthem, but with ‘Black Hole Sun’ Cornell and co. delivered one of the most defining of the era.
As Chris Cornell told Uncut Magazine, “I wrote it in my head driving home from Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville… It sparked from something a news anchor said on TV and I heard wrong. I heard ‘blah blah black hole sun blah’. I thought that would make an amazing song title, but what would it sound like?” As it turns out, it sounds like the stormy collision of grunge and Led Zeppelin.
‘Zero Chance’ – Soundgarden (1996)
It is often the case that the better the singer the more overlooked the lyrics and sometimes Cornell can fall victim of that habit. However, with the mellowed-out jam of ‘Zero Chance’, he delivers some of his most cutting verses in such a withdrawn way that they land like a stone.
This interpretative intonation is a solid indicator of Cornell’s interpretive depth as a performer. He could adrenalise a crowd of thousands with rock ‘n’ roll bravura but he could also regale a sonnet when it was called for. Tragically the dark undertone to the lyrics now stands as a portent of the cataclysm to come.
‘Like a Stone’ – Audioslave (2002)
If you are calling a song ‘Like a Stone’ then you must be very confident about it, considering that the mind immediately leaps to Bob Dylan’s incomparable rolling classic. As it happens it is arguably the best track that Audioslave would muster in their celebrated discography.
With a rousing intro, thrilling verse and an almost-haunting chorus, the song quickly cemented itself as a fan favourite of the band. It also ticks all the boxes in terms of the sound of the era imbuing it with a healthy dose of nostalgia now all is said and done.
‘As Hope and Promise Fade’ (2011)
Cornell stood out from the Seattle scene crop as the sort of timeless performer who was relishing in a scene of his choosing, but always had such depth that you wondered whether if he was born twenty years earlier, he’d be a star akin to Tim Buckley.
Even in his heavier work has a hint of the folk troubadour to it. Thus, his departure to a more acoustic style wasn’t as much as a surprise as his electric back catalogue might have suggested, and it was certainly a switch that found him in fine voice.