November 26, 2011 by Dan Swinhoe
“‘Part of Me’ will surely go down in the history of embarrassing music as one of the most unintentionally hilarious records of all time. With production supplied by a well-past-his-peak Timbaland, it featured Cornell wailing over the top of cheesy hip-hop beats about how “Oooh, that bitch ain’t a part of me/No, that bitch ain’t a part of me/I said no, that bitch ain’t a part of me/No, that bitch ain’t a part of me…” as if for some appalling reason he thought it was appropriate to unleash his misogynistic side because he was collaborating with a rapper. Not all rock/rap crossover projects are terrible, but this one certainly was. It was so catastrophically awful that it even inspired the reputedly morose Trent Reznor to launch a spoof website with the sole intention of mocking the pathetic project. Cornell soon went crawling back to his Soundgarden chums and at the time of writing it awaits to be seen whether the results will manage to redeem the discredited warbler.”
Not to put it lightly, you have to admire Chris Cornell’s cajones. Not only was it impossible to think he didn’t know ‘Scream’ would be greeted with such a hostile reception, between him and Timbaland they managed to wholeheartedly tell the world it was the dog’s bollocks. Even before ‘Scream’, Cornell stepped up to replace Zack De La Rocha and form Audioslave with the rest of Rage Against The Machine.
Going on stage armed with nothing but an acoustic and your voice is a brave thing to do as well. It leaves you musically naked, stripping your songs down to the bare minimum and can reveal in an instant if you’re a phony or a genius. With ‘Songbook’ Cornell gives us his first live album, recorded from various dates on his one man tour, and bares his musical soul for all to see.
At his best, Chris Cornell the solo act is about musical simplicity, sparse acoustic work that lets his smooth voice do all the hard work. And that really shines through here. ‘Songbook’ gives the fans what they want, and it reads like a greatest hits package, one that has some real effort put into it. Opening with ‘As Hope And Promise Fade’ (Listed as the bonus track ‘Two Drink Minimum’ on ‘Scream’) a bluesy number that sets the tone for the rest of the night. Culling tracks from across his career, there’s enough from across the board to keep everyone happy, moving seamlessly from early Temple of the Dog classic ‘Call Me a Dog’ to post-millennium Audioslave number ‘I Am The Highway’ like they were both written yesterday. His vocal range is impressive, from the silky smooth to coarse and broken but always soulful, and his guitar work allows room for the focus to stay on those pipes. Acoustic version of songs may not be a particularly original approach but the quality of the songs and the singer really come across. At worst it’s satisfying and at best beautiful.
The two Soundgarden tracks on offer (‘Fell On Black Days’ and ‘Black Hole Sun’) are obvious highlights. They were classics when they were released in the nineties, and with no effort at all they translate perfectly to the intimate atmosphere. While I was never a big fan of Audiosalve, the renditions on here are still good and fit in well with the rest of the set and I imagine ‘Slave fans will love it. And it confirms ‘Like a Stone’ was the best thing to come out of tenure with Tom Morello. The new tracks on offer, ‘Cleaning My Gun’ and a studio recording of ‘The Keeper’ maintain the high quality the rest of the songs offer. ‘Cleaning…’ especially, with its refrained chords and heartfelt chorus. The two covers (Led Zep’s ‘Thank You’ and Lennon’s ‘Imagine’) are ok but don’t add much and seem like space that could’ve been taken up by some original material or covers that would suit him better (staying on the same bands, I’d say ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’ and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’).
Unlike his achievements with Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog, Cornell’s solo albums have never reached that ‘classic’ status, for every killer track there was usually an equal number of filler. ‘Can’t Change Me’ is one of the most upbeat numbers and beats the original, and is one of the highlights. That being said, it’s a shame the solo material on offer is so sparse, with a bulk of songs that seem odd to have left out. ‘Sweet Euphoria’ would’ve been an obvious one to include, and the only track from ‘Carry On’ (‘Scar On The Sky’) while given a good rendition, is one of the weaker tracks that could’ve been picked.
The are only a few grumbles with this album. The first, it’s safe track listing. Aside from ‘Ground Zero’, de-Timbalanded and all the better for it, there’s no real surprises, and many of the songs on offer have been given the acoustic treatment before on various releases. Cornell’s lack of between song banter and the fading in and out of the crowd between songs disrupt the flow, which is important for the experience of a live release. But these are small gripes in an otherwise excellent album, and there’s nothing to say that this will be only ‘Songbook’ release. With a twenty year-plus career with over ten albums across three bands and as a solo act he’s not short of songs.
As Thrash Hits kindly pointed out, this isn’t a new Soundgarden record. The wait goes on to see what they produce. But Cornell’s solo career has always stood separately to his achievements with them. In ‘Songbook’ he has his best solo effort yet, and shows he’s a classic songwriter and a quality singer. And if people can forgive Metallica for Lou Reed (I’m assuming they will, all their other musical Faux Pas seem to get swept under the carpet), it’s safe bet people with this people will forget about his bitches not being a part of him.
Chris Cornell Spotify playlist: