Chris Cornell, lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave, died earlier this month. Known as one of the founders of the grunge movement in the early ‘90s, he continued his groundbreaking career into the following decades, making music that always defied easy categorization.
Exploring primary resources from the ‘80s and ‘90s reveal that since the beginning, critics struggled with classifying Cornell’s singular rock ’n ’roll vision. This research can also remind researchers what a short yet bright and influential era this was. Lasting less than a decade, and ultimately encompassing a relatively small group of iconic musicians, the grunge subculture comforted an alienated generation with an aura of authenticity and intimacy. Which makes the sudden death of one of its few remaining founders such an immense loss for so many.
In 1988, before the grunge movement seemed to be on the radar of most mainstream media, Soundgarden released their debut album, Ultramega Ok, garnering enough attention that it was nominated for “Best Metal Performance” in 1990.
The sound was heavy, but it wasn’t one that just appealed to the hard rockers.
A self-proclaimed “pop hound” writing for Spin magazine lamented that all popular music, from bubblegum to neo-folk and indie rock to hip hop offered a “constricted range of emotion” that felt “alienating.”
“Major league recordings sound so synchronized, equalized, and air-brushed these days that whatever sincerity or emotional import they possess come off as pep rally hype or candidate promises,” the writer elaborated.
Even as they called to mind older music – Soundgarden was often compared to the likes of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath – Cornell and company sparked new energy into popular music, and made the listener authentically feel something. “Every pop form today….leads to the same solitary dead end,” he added. “Which is why, in my book, Soundgarden is dope.”
“Soundgarden’s we-gotta-get-out-of this-place, mind-wrecking songs of the repressed work,” the review insisted.
Axl Rose, it turned out, was an early fan as well. Especially of the band’s raging, powerful vocals. According to the Seattle Times, Guns n’ Roses controversial front man name-dropped the band in his Rolling Stone cover interview, with a special nod to Cornell: “The singer just buries me,” said Rose. “The guy sings so great.”
But not everyone was so convinced.
“‘New metal’ is going through a personality crisis – it doesn’t have much,” according to a 1990 Billboard Soundgarden concert review. “Despite abrasive originals like ‘Ugly Truth and ‘Gun’ and canny covers, Chris Cornell never really connected with the crowd.”
However, only a year later, the publication offered quite a different perspective. With the release of the Soundgarden’s second album, Badmotorfinger ushering in a new musical movement that no one could stop talking about, Billboard described the band as “one of the earliest practitioners of the grungy ‘Seattle sound’” who “spent years filling tiny club and hall spaces with a sound sonically big enough to fill arenas.”
The Billboard profile included an interview the president of A&M Records, the band’s enthusiastic new label. “These guys,” he prophesized, “are going to be huge.”
One thing that set Soundgarden apart from their peers, grunge or otherwise, was their “big fat guitar sounds and revitalization of what a riff could be,” along with a rejection of “standard lead/rhythm hierarchy of rock bands immemorial,” according to Musician magazine in 1992. Unlike most rock groups, Soundgarden increasingly featured two guitarists, Cornell and Kim Thayil, who had completely different approaches to the instrument and often played in harmony.
The band also stood out as they gained a reputation for offering a more cerebral and thoughtful brand of metal. Musician pointed out that in addition to “the kick of metal and the smarts of alternative rock, Soundgarden inserts intelligence, not to mention strange tunings and odd meters, where excessive volume and bluster used to suffice” to their distinctive musical style.
“Cornell's lyrics, too, are probably an intellectual stretch for the typical MTV viewer,” Rolling Stone wrote in 1992, describing the prolific songwriter’s lyrics as “surreal word paintings, with a distinct visual quality that probably goes underappreciated by the ‘let’s-party-dude-set.’”
Skip ahead to the late ‘90s and the release of "Euphoria Morning,” a solo debut described as “more of a singer-songwriter album than anything Cornell ever recorded with guitar-heavy Soundgarden. The vocals soar, and the lyrics are clear and powerful. Cornell stretches his creative muscle too, combining elements of rock, soul and R&B with experimental textures while remaining accessible to Top 40 sensibilities,” according to the Seattle-Post Intelligencer."
I came from an era in music that had no rules," Cornell told the newspaper. "The idea was that you can do whatever you want as long as you're inspired by it and its natural.”
Whether making hard rock with a band, or performing stripped down as a solo act, or, most recently, composing sweeping orchestral arrangement, this beautiful, brooding authenticity of Cornell’s signature songwriting style sealed his legacy as one of the greatest voices of his generation.
Morris, C. (1990, Jan 20). Talent: TALENT IN ACTION - S0UNDGARDEN THE BIG F DAS DAMEN. Billboard (Archive: 1963-2000), 102, 40.
Pike, J. (1991, Sep 21). Talent: Cultivating soundgarden's success. Billboard (Archive: 1963-2000), 103, 32-32, 35.
Woodard, J. (1992, Mar 01). Guitar: Soundgarden's kim thayil & chris cornell. Musician (Archive: 1982-1999), 77-78.
Neely, K. (1992, Jul 09). Sound garden. Rolling Stone, 45.
MacDonald, P. (1989, Jul 21). SOUNDGARDEN HAS FOUND A FLOWERING FAN IN AXL ROSE. Seattle Times. pp. 10.
GENE STOUT P-I POP, MUSIC CRITIC. (1999, Sep 21). SOLO ALBUM SHOWS ANOTHER SIDE OF SOUNDGARDEN'S CHRIS CORNELL NEW SOLO ALBUM SHOWS ANOTHER SIDE OF CHRIS CORNELL. Seattle Post - Intelligencer. pp. E1.
Thompson, J. (1988, Dec 01). Soundgarden. Spin (Archive: 1985-2000), 4, 104-105.
For more information, see also:
Phillips, W. C. B. (2009). Encyclopedia of Heavy Metal Music. Westport: ABC-CLIO, LLC.
Charles, C. (2016). Kurt Cobain and Nirvana - Updated Edition. Laguna Hills: Voyageur Press.
Henderson, J. (2016). Grunge: Seattle. New York: Roaring Forties Press.
Stenning, Paul. Rage Against The Machine - Stage Fighters, edited by Paul Stenning, John Blake, 2016.
Baker, S. B. A. T. J. (2013). Redefining Mainstream Popular Music. Florence: Taylor and Francis.
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Image: By Simon Jacquier from Vernayaz (near Martigny, Valais), Switzerland (Audioslave) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons