I am not sure grunge can be truly appreciated by anyone who didn’t have their formative years in the overproduced musical wasteland that were the 80s. It’s hard to appreciate the contrast if grunge happened before your teenage years or after you stopped identifying yourself by your choice in music. Grunge is Gen X. For me, it started with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, but I remember coming home one day in 1991 and being greeted by my then-boyfriend blasting ‘Rusty Cage’ from Badmotorfinger. (My 2015 homage to Rusty Cage was linked last week). Of all the grunge bands that I have loved since then, Soundgarden is my favorite. Chris Cornell’s voice hit me in the gut in a way that Eddie Vedder’s never did. And Chris’s death is hitting me in ways that Cobain’s and Staley’s didn’t.
I’m not an expert in any way on grunge or Cornell. When most of the grunge icons were touring Europe in the 90s I was too poor to go see them. Starting with the 2011 Songbook acoustic tour, though, I have seen three of Chris’s solo shows and one Soundgarden concert. And from that perspective I want to point out that if Black Hole Sun is the first song that comes to mind when you think of Chris Cornell, I’d like to share a few songs with you that go far beyond that written-in-15-minutes mega hit.
While I like Ultramega OK and the other earlier albums, they are more generic heavy rock that misses the complexity that made later Soundgarden work so special. Chris has said that he didn’t start to write about personal stuff until Badmotorfinger and maybe that makes a difference too. This was just after Temple Of The Dog, the album Chris recorded with former Mother Love Bone band members, because he didn’t think the songs he had written for Andrew Wood’s death would be liked by Soundgarden. But maybe they were the first signs of the shift he would make with Soundgarden later.
As you can tell here, getting personal unleashed a lot. And the last two minutes of Say Hello 2 Heaven may be one of his best vocal performances ever.
For the sake of brevity I will pull only song each from the big three Soundgarden albums, staying away from the obvious ones that you’ve probably heard a million times. I picked videos with lyrics where possible, because besides his awesome vocal range, Cornell had a way with words. They’re not always that easy to make out though, Cornell himself once quipped that he didn’t start getting compliments on his lyrics until Johnny Cash covered Rusty Cage.
Let’s start with Slaves & Bulldozers from Badmotorfinger. Another song that truly showcases Cornell’s vocal range (which was even more phenomenal at the age he recorded this). It features that typical heavy, rolling Soundgarden beat, overlaid by screaming guitars and an utterly emoting Cornell. Coincidentally, it is also the last song he performed last week in Detroit.
Limo Wreck from Superunknown. This album is probably the most accessible of these early ones, despite the tempo changes, weird tunings and timing shifts. Its complexity and the lack of filler also mean you can listen to it regularly for 25 years and still not get sick of it (except Black Hole Sun, that one you can get sick of). As with most Cornell songs the real fireworks happen at the end of the song (after a proper buildup).
Forgive me if you’ve heard Burden in My Hand a million times, but I’ve had this one on repeat in the kitchen for months. I swear I can hear Alexa sigh when I request it again.
Right Turn is an acoustic song by ‘Alice Mudgarden’, a collaboration between Alice in Chains, Mark Arm form Mudhoney and Chris. You can find it on the EP ‘Sap’ by AIC. It’s not difficult to pick Chris out of the line up!
From his Audioslave days, here is the album version of I Am the Highway.
Wide Awake is another Audioslave song, but this is the song like he performed it on his solo acoustic tours and recorded on Songbook in 2011. After Soundgarden reformed in 2010, Chris kept alternating tours with Soundgarden with solo acoustic tours. The latter were truly something special.
This is the acoustic tour version of When I Am Down, one of the highlights off Euphoria Mourning, one of his solo albums.
From the 2012 Soundgarden reunion album King Animal comes Bones of Birds. Less vocal acrobatics, more of a mournful vibe on this one.
The last time I saw him perform live was during the Higher Truth tour in 2015. This is the title song from that album and the song I’ve been listening to most of this last week. It’s a fitting goodbye.
P.S. If music theory is your thing and you’re wondering about that four octave range, this video is worth watching!