The greatest rock singer of all time.
This is how I have often described Chris Cornell. Not that it is possible to prove such a thing, or that definitive rankings of rock voices matter, but there were many things about Cornell that drove me to use that descriptor. When having countless discussions about the greatness of voices and guitarists and albums and bands and eras and sounds, friends and I would have debates about who absolutely owned any particular element of rock and roll. For me, although it is merely a subjective opinion, I often pointed to Cornell as the most powerful, versatile voice in rock.
There are others, of course, and many of them left us too soon as well. Freddie Mercury and Prince stand out in particular in the combination of talent and tragedy. But to an angry, confused kid born on the edge of the Gen-X / Gen-Y bubble, Cornell was special. The man had the ability to be a voice of rage in our darkest times, and a soothing presence when the anger subsided and sadness started. He was incredibly soulful, a howling banshee (the “Ronnie James Dio of Seattle”), covertly bluesy, and sometimes just a big, unabashed rocker.
With his Soundgarden bandmates, Cornell released three legitimate rock classics in Louder Than Love, Badmotorfinger, and Superunknown. The albums ranged from raw grunge to doom metal to Zeppelinesque sprawl to singer/songwriter beauty to pop rock to filthy punk and back, with many of their greatest tracks penned completely by Cornell himself. With Temple of the Dog, he almost solely wrote one of grunge’s most iconic albums, while paying tribute to his friend and Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, another name in the long list of grunge’s tragedies. Hell, the man even helped to keep Audioslave from being terrible, a feat for an obvious product of record label convenience, but let’s not treat that as any more than a footnote compared to the gargantuan achievements of the above albums.
As a lyricist, Cornell was deft, clever, and in possession of more depth than most of his scenemates. Many will point to Kurt Cobain’s poetry/ramblings as the ultimate expression of a tortured soul, or to Layne Staley as a warning against addiction, but Cornell transcended any one topic or range of topics. “Hands All Over” discussed the specificity of environmental decline but also the generally toxic nature of the human touch; “Slaves & Bulldozers” detailed the ugliness of compromising one’s values; “Jesus Christ Pose” and several other songs took aim at religious sanctimony; “The Day I Tried to Live” expressed how the effort needed to simply feel is often a daredevil activity; “Fell on Black Days” is the blues, updated for the Seattle era. We’ll have to forgive him his occasional flub like “Big Dumb Sex,” because at the peak of his lyrical prowess, no one else from the Seattle scene could touch him. (And no, I do not consider “Ty Cobb” to be a flub, at all.)
But above it all was his voice. Chris Cornell possessed one of the most versatile and downright powerful set of pipes the world has ever heard, and he employed his range to perfection, always matching the background music and lyrics with just the right touch. The understated terror of “Blow Up the Outside World” and snide acceptance of “4th of July” alone showed how differently he could tackle apocalyptic feelings; the aforementioned “Slaves & Bulldozers” is as virtuosic an expression of pure hatred as has ever been put to tape; “Uncovered” was an early example of his soulful, introspective side, and a hint at the range he was just beginning to discover.
There are countless songs from across his career that illustrate his mastery, but “Reach Down,” from Temple of the Dog, might be his finest moment. At its core a jam song meant to showcase the soloing of Mike McCready, it is Cornell’s jam-bookending vocals that completely steal the show. Over the multi-tracked chorus, Cornell absolutely unleashes, delivering a performance that not only matches the song’s title, but cemented his immortality before he even released two of his three Soundgarden classics. The number of times I have blown out my voice trying to sing along to this track while plowing down the highway is hard to fathom. Some heroes just can’t be touched, but coming short of Chris Cornell is a good type of failure.
The musical loss here is great, but the loss of the man is something I cannot begin to express. The statements and words of Kim, Ben, Matt, and the countless other musicians with which Cornell worked over the decades will be far more appropriate. For them, and most importantly for Cornell’s wife and children, the loss is of much more than just a voice and songs, no matter how much that voice and those songs touched us.
Celebrate his music, for it was a gift to us all. Make it your own, for that was his wish. Goodbye to the man that in my most passionate music fan moments I often called the greatest of all time. Say hello 2 Heaven for us, Chris.