2009 / Music

Review: Chris Cornell’s ‘Scream’ Howls For Electro-Pop Stardom

Ex-Soungarden, Audioslave Frontman Releases Third Solo Disc

Fifteen years ago, Chris Cornell was the frontman for grunge pioneers Soundgarden and as such, seen as the goateed evil twin of a reincarnated ’70s golden god. His long dark-hair flailing with each punishing metal riff, Cornell and his smoky howl of a voice gave melody, range and even a little dynamism to his lyric’s dark musings, helping the sludge-heavy Seattle band resonate with an alienated generation of rock fans.

Photo: Mosley Music/Suretone Records

Photo: Mosley Music/Suretone Records

So, at the pinnacle of his rock-star status in 1994, Cornell made an uncannily accurate joke about his musical future in an online chat with fans to promote Soungarden’s heavy-rock masterwork, “Superunknown.”

Question: Will you ever release a solo album?

Cornell: Probably some day. When I’m balding and I hit my Phil Collins stage.

It was a remark to deflect the uncomfortable cliche of a lead singer going solo. By 2009, however, the flippant comment isn’t so funny anymore. Cornell might still have his hair, but certainly not his hard-rock dignity. Eleven years after Soundgarden broke up and two since the demise of Audioslave — his high-profile but ultimately mismatched supergroup teamup with the rhythm section of Rage Against the Machine, Cornell has just released his third solo disc, “Scream.” The album, a collaboration with hip-hop producer Timbaland, marks Cornell’s Collins period is in full blossom. While “Scream” might not offer the big-chorus, synthesizer ditties that Collins cornered the market on during the mid-’80s, Cornell’s electro-pop jams are a decent enough stab at winning superstardom and will successfully alienate any headbangers who’ve stuck by the singer this long.

Obviously, the idea of Cornell partnering with one of pop music’s top producing talents, not to mention tracking an album that is all but an audition for a guest appearance on “American Idol,” is enough to make any metalhead cry, “Traitor!” But, the idea that Cornell’s tastes and ambition extend beyond Zeppelin-sized rock goes back to the beginning of his career. A couple of songs that he wrote in Temple of the Dog, a grunge-era side project he recorded with Pearl Jam, certainly skirted the pop genre. And the last Audioslave record featured several songs that had a more pronounced R&B and funk feel than you’d thought a quintessential metal guy would feel comfortable with.

So, with a solo sojourn already two albums old and little to show for it besides those crying for him to scream “Spoonman” one more time, Cornell might have felt his chances for mainstream acceptance dimming. Meanwhile, he could only manage to sound jealous when Billboard magazine asked him about last year’s “Idol” winner David Cook covering Cornell’s re-arrangement of Michael Jackson’s ’80s smash, “Billie Jean,” during the show’s telecast. Instead of being gracious, Cornell devoted most of his interview time to being petty and super-sensitive that his work was duplicated by a fellow pop-star wannabe. With all this swirling about, Cornell might have thought a hail mary was in order for him to right his own career.

Employing Timbaland was certainly a wise move on Cornell’s part and decision made for its hoped-for impact. Timbaland’s track record manning dozens of hits for artists ranging from Justin Timberlake to Jay-Z speaks for itself. If Cornell was looking for someone to tutor him in the nuances of climbing the pop charts, he could have no better guide. At the same time, Timbaland has always dreamt of being a maverick when compared to other top-flight hitmakers. He likely leapt at the opportunity to work with Cornell because it allowed him to extend his brand into a new genre — rock — and to demonstrate the full extent of his studio mastery.

With “Scream,” the Cornell-Timbaland partnership clearly manages the most tuneful of all the singer’s solo records. Cornell’s previous outings — “Euphoria Morning” and “Carry On” — struggled to find a coherent (much less an enjoyable) musical identity for the frontman. Outside of Soundgarden or Audioslave, Cornell could never make up his mind if he wanted to be an arena-rocker or a crooning singer-songwriter in the mold of his onetime pal, the late Jeff Buckley. “Scream” finally settles the debate. Cornell wants to be “Thriller”-era Michael Jackson, with Tim injecting futuristic, Timberlake-style instrumentation to the tracks, lending a contemporary feeling to the production.

That being said, it’s hard not to feel yourself constantly cringing at various points of this disc. It’s not that Cornell’s pipes can’t cut it. In fact, he often acquits himself surprisingly and splendidly despite how weird these tracks often sound. Rather, it’s how the synthetic keyboard murmuring and drum machine pings and pops so blatantly clash with Cornel’s flannel-clad persona that jars the listening experience. Somewhere, Kim Thayil and Tom Morello are chuckling.

The album’s opening track and first single, “Part Of Me,” is testament to this incongruity. Backed by dense layers of fuzzed-out squeaks and squawks and a hop-along digital syncopation, Cornell sings like he’s ditched the world’s largest stages so he can mack and conquer the neighborhood nymphs on dance floor. He vocally struts throughout the verses like a player scanning the scene and dropping the B-word during the chorus to fit in an alien crowd. Listeners can almost imagine Cornell has ditched his Doc Martens for a pair of penny loafers to ease in his moonwalking.

To put Cornell over with the pop crowd, Timbaland focuses squarely on creating an undeniable groove and then proceeds to stack layers of interlacing studio effects on top, utilizing and even recycling everything in his formidable bag of tricks. Cornell’s singing, often multi-tracked and sometimes distorted through autotuning, then fits in the carved-out spaces. His clipped singing never dangles beyond a verse and never rises to anything near poetry or rebelliousness. The lyrics, which Cornell demonstrated some cleverness with during his Soundgarden years only to regress horribly in Audioslave, are now a complete afterthought to the vocal melodies he’s singing.

A majority of these songs are what we’d expect of Timbaland. In this meeting of the minds, it’s obvious Cornell has moved far more toward Timbaland’s comfort zone than the other way around. On “Time,” Cornell’s seasoned yelp ducks between punchy bass thuds and keyboard whimpers. For “Sweet Revenge,” Cornell wants to whine about the pains of a star’s life while Tim deploys an army of digital insects to click and chirp encouragement. Proto-club jam “Get Up” has a suitably danceable rhythm and some solid backing vocals from Tim that sounds like an oscillating diggerdoo. But, “Never Far Away” is closet the duo come to an appealing R&B single. Fake nylon-string guitars twinkle as Timbaland conjures swirls of strings and keyboards to create an ideal gangsta anthem. Instead of going with the flow, however, Cornell wants to wail like he’s playing Lollapalooza again. He hasn’t learned the most important lesson of being an R&B soul man: you need to play it cool.

The album’s most curious cuts are the ones where both men seem willing to experiment. The ragga-rock of “Take Me Alive” (which features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Timberlake) harnesses the Indian influences that Cornell’s Zeppelin and Beatle musical forebears dabbled in and transports its ’60s kitschiness to Tim’s space-age sonic environs. The melody of “Long Gone” is derived from a cut-up techno rhythm that phases in and out, shimmering in the background so Cornell can make it a modern-day torch song. The record’s title track finds Cornell and Timbaland sharing common inspiration in ’70s prog-rock. Most of the song is a big Aerosmith ballad with dance beats, but the track’s extended outro explicitly quotes the slide guitarwork of “Dark Side Of The Moon”-era Pink Floyd. Maybe these odd bedfellows do own a few records in common.

Near the end of the record, Cornell’s rock side begins to win out amid Timbaland’s beatmaking. It’s hard to resist the taut, Motown-ish drum beat of “Other Side Of Town,” but this because the arrangement and even the vocal cadences are ones that Timbaland has clearly used on other projects. Despite this, the track gives Cornell the chance to explore his deeper register as he groans about a woman who has done him wrong. Like Jackson, he even duets with his own falsetto during the song’s bridge before ceding ground to a whining, free-floating keyboard solo. “Climbing Up The Walls,” however, is straight modern-rock power-pop like the kind perfected by groups like Snow Patrol or Keane. A snappy rhythm, gristled guitar licks and dumb-as-a-puppy-dog chorus render this an exercise in satisfying any rock fans who are still listening to this.

Serious rock fans will want to scream at the end of this disc, or at least sigh. Cornell has joined the fraternity of singers who become addicted to fame and in the process, allowed their neediness for attention to overtake their better judgment. The generous-hearted among them might cut Cornell slack for trying something new while ignoring how transparent his motives are. To achieve the kind of status he covets, he didn’t have to out-rock his old bands. He just had to write better songs and play music that was true to himself. Short of having more information than a knowledge of Cornell’s history, this seems a thoroughly dishonest record.

It’s safe to say “Scream” won’t fulfill Cornell’s pop fantasies, although it might give Timbaland more ins among those rockers who share Cornell’s questionable scruples. At the very least, this opens the door for Tim to partner with Phil Collins., another one-time legend looking to a pull off a comeback.

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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