Album Review: Chris Cornell, ‘Higher Truth’

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It’s been quite the journey for Chris Cornell over the past eight years – one filled with redemption, reinvigoration, and rediscovery. Harkening back to 2007, he left the highly successful Audioslave to concentrate on his solo career. In fact, I saw him perform at the Starland Ballroom right after he announced his departure and he tore up the venue with a bunch of heavy hitters from Soundgarden, Audioslave, and Temple of the Dog.

During that show, I felt it in my bones that he would eventually return to Soundgarden and maybe even write another solo record in the vein of Euphoria Mourning (Yes, the title has been changed as of 2015). Well, my prediction eventually came true but nobody could’ve predicated what would happen next. Back in 2007, Chris Cornell performed this haunting cover of Billie Jean, which was the perfect musical palette to display his artistic brilliance. Sometime in 2008, David Cooke from American Idol performed this same acoustic rendition of “Billie Jean” to critical acclaim and commercial success, which saw both artists shoot up the iTunes music charts.

In my opinion, the management team surrounding Cornell wanted him to capitalize on this momentum and pursue a pop direction to attract this massive American Idol audience. In theory, Cornell had already reached millions of people through his three successful bands, and millions of dollars were on the table if this caught on. Especially in 2008, there was no producer more popular than Timbaland. He was responsible for jumpstarting Justin Timberlake’s solo career and he himself released a bunch of popular hits accredited to his name.

However, something just didn’t sit right hearing someone of Cornell’s caliber – an Edgar Allen Poe meets Leonardo DaVinci talent in the rock community – pursue a pop direction. Hench why 2009’s Scream received one of the fiercest backlashes in recent memory. I’ll admit – look past the glossy production, autotuned vocals, and hip-hop inspired beats – there was some quality material in there but nothing came close to matching the eminence of “Say Hello 2 Heaven.” The beauty of Chris Cornell’s songwriting is found in his ability to create elegance in the darkest territories, emotionally breaking barriers no other artist could achieve. Most listeners despised hearing him adhere to modern pop standards.

So, what do you when you fall? You get right back up if you’re determined to prove the world wrong. And that’s exactly what Chris Cornell has accomplished over the past six years. Back in 2010, I truly believe that he needed to rediscover his roots and reconnect with his bandmates Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron, and Ben Shepherd on both a musical and personal level. Soundgarden’s reunion sent shockwaves throughout the rock community – their mysticism hadn’t wavered over the years.

To meet the demands of his past material, Cornell took proper measures to get his voice in top shape. If you watch this video of “Beyond The Wheel” from Soundgarden’s first show in 2010, it once seemed highly unlikely that Cornell could ever sing anything off Ultramega OK after his stint in Audioslave, yet those walls definitely shook in Chicago. In between tours with Soundgarden, Cornell embarked on his first ever “Songbook” tour in 2011– an intimate unplugged performance highlighted with gems from his entire catalog. Unfamiliar listeners could pull up YouTube videos from any of his acoustic shows and hear the riveting power in his voice, especially in such an open setting.

The “Songbook” tour eventually morphed into the Songbook live album, which garnered widespread acclaim from both fans and critics alike. This is what longtime listeners had always wanted – to see Cornell maximize his musical talent as both a solo artist and frontman for Soundgarden. During his acoustic tours, I believe that Cornell and audiences alike rediscovered the majestic beauty of his criminally underrated masterpiece Euphoria Mourning. Tracks like “Can’t Change Me,” “Preaching the End of the World,” and “When I’m Down” – especially “When I’m Down” – were given a second chance to be rediscovered by the masses.

After four years of performing acoustically, Chris Cornell channeled this momentum into a brand new LP Higher Truth. His first solo record in six years: Higher Truth combines his quench for folk rock, previously heard on 2011’s “The Keeper,” with the powerful melodies, minor chords and brutally honest lyrics, which are a signature part of his musical identity. In some ways, this record sounds like the sequel to Euphoria Mourning, yet it also displays a veteran songwriter feeling quite comfortable in his own skin. At this stage in his career, he is solely writing songs for his own personal enjoyment. Produced by Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Rage Against The Machine, Stone Temple Pilots), listeners have no reason to lash out against him or question his collaborations like they did during “Scream.”

“Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart,” could easily be mistaken for a single off Euphoria Mourning – its gorgeous pop melodies are heightened by Cornell’s breathtaking range. Once he shifts into his higher register during the chorus, it’s the equivalent to getting struck by the pouring rain in Seattle – we’re talking a Tsunami of emotions. Let me also acknowledge – I loved Soundgarden’s comeback album King Animal and I’m a big fan of Audioslave’s first record– but Cornell hasn’t sounded this good since Euphoria Mourning (with the exception of Songbook). O’Brien summoned some difficult notes out of him, and as a result, the musical undertones recall the likes of “Burden In My Hand.”

“Dead Wishes” starts off with these beautiful acoustic riffs, which are reminiscent of Temple of the Dog before the track swings into a folk-style rhythm. I’d even say Cornell channels his inner Bob Dylan since this is a straightforward folk song. He doesn’t stray too far from his midrange vocally and the tempo is pretty calm. Will fans who enjoy Soundgarden’s “Birth Ritual” like this song? I highly doubt it, however, listeners should appreciate the bleak poetry once he sings, “Dead wishes on a broken chain/ White roses in a dead man’s dream/Down and out with nothing to lose/ If these long dead wishes ever do come true.”

I’d classify “Worried Moon” as a traditional Chris Cornell acoustic standard, it’s pretty soft spoken and delicate compared to the rest of the record. The chorus manages to infuse some much needed energy by creating something both powerful and memorable. The harmonica solo adds a nice twist to Cornell’s repertoire but I wouldn’t consider this a must-listen. Without the chorus, “Worried Moon” runs the risk of sounding like filler.

“Before We Disappear” begins with an extraordinary piano intro and acoustic interlude, which translates into one of the most beautiful moments off Higher Truth. The melody sounds so uplifting yet touches on the coldest emotions lyrically, especially when he sings “Life ain’t nothing if it ain’t hard/ It’ll show you who you truly are/ Knock you down when you get too tall/ Till you spun around in a free fall.” Again, the musical undertones in Cornell’s songwriting will recall the vividness of his solo debut. He has experienced a lot of turmoil in his life and this song touches on the subject of mortality since he’s older now. He realizes time shouldn’t be taken for granted and “Before We Disappear” makes the effort to apply some clarity towards those painful moments from the past.

“Through The Window” evokes the elegant chord selection heard on classic staples like “Preaching The End of the World,” but in a folk rock fashion. Much like “Worried Moon,” this song contains a very straightforward acoustic approach. However, “Through The Window” is way more musically intriguing than “Worried Moon,” yet it’s not as poetically distinguished as “Before We Disappear.”

“Josephine” displays the massive Beatles influence in Chris Cornell’s songwriting. Cornell has covered John Lennon’s “Imagine” in the past and this acoustic pop approach adds a much welcomed element to Higher Truth. The simplicity in the chord selection allows Cornell to compose some extraordinary melodies during the chorus. In classic fashion, “Josephine” is a self-confessional love song yet he still finds a way to sing about death and mortality in the lyrics.

“Murder of Blue Chains” starts off with a standard acoustic introduction but gets really interesting towards the halfway point after the piano melody kicks in. Please don’t freak out, “Blue Chains” moves into this eye opening R&B rhythm section – I’m talking old school R&B and nothing reminiscent of Scream whatsoever. During the guitar solo, Cornell hits the most powerful notes off the entire album and those moments where he screams away will recall Down On The Upside gems like “Pretty Noose.”

I have to admit, the title track “Higher Truth needs a few listens to appreciate its elegant complexity. I absolutely applaud the piano intro since Cornell’s voice sounds extraordinarily powerful. Just like the brightest moments off Euphoria Mourning – “Higher Truth” miraculously combines bleak pop melodies, piano balladry, and psychedelic gospel vocals. In theory, those styles merged together would seem pretty awkward yet Cornell’s diverse range allows this ballad to find the “Higher Truth.”

Without a doubt, “Let Your Eyes Wander’ is this album’s masterpiece. Underneath the finger picked guitar melody, this gorgeous song structure will recall the broad emotions of “Can’t Change Me,” “I Am The Highway” or “Like A Stone.” If I worked for his record label, this would undoubtedly be the next single. There is serious potential for a hit, especially on the adult contemporary charts. The verse where he sings, “Followed every word that I have ever heard/ And I still don’t know what to say” is one of the most poetic moments of his entire career. Cornell set out to write acoustic material for this record, which would perfectly complement his Songbook tour. “Let Your Eyes Wander” smooth grandeur certainly accomplished this goal and will capture the audience’s imagination.

“Only These Words” combines upbeat folk with shades of dream pop. I haven’t heard Cornell tackle this approach before and it’s definitely a new direction. I’d say this song was heavily influenced by what’s occurring right now in the modern indie scene among acts like Mumford & Sons.

“Circling” finds its stride once it moves away from the folk rock blueprint – a style previously used many times throughout Higher Truth…maybe even too much. The chorus is remarkable when he sings, “Circling around the drain/ Can’t find my way back to home/ The road is long/ And never ends,”– that’s when “Circling” reaches its apex. In fact, you wish O’Brien and Cornell had built upon on that melody underneath the distorted guitars. As a result, they sacrificed some emotional substance and concentrated their efforts towards another folk-style verse with less potential.

“Our Time In The Universe,” features acoustic guitar riffs and middle eastern inspired melodies before the chorus merges pop rock with electronic samples. The basslines underneath the chorus was most certainly welcomed since this album lacked a lot of bass guitar. It’s a pretty strange track and probably my least favorite besides “Worried Moon.” I’d call it an eclectic display of world music styles reminiscent of late 90s/early 2000s Sting.

Regardless of my critiques, Higher Truth is a true comeback record for Chris Cornell’s solo career. He recaptured a songwriting style that he should have never abandoned in the first place. Much like Euphoria Mourning, Higher Truth is a dramatic rollercoaster that confronts our heaviest emotions. Do I prefer Cornell’s heavier material? Yes, but that’s not say I didn’t enjoy Higher Truth. I always loved songs like “Call Me A Dog,” “Seasons,” “Follow My Way,” and “Sweet Euphoria.” This man is the gold standard for brilliant songwriters. I personally consider him the most unique rock vocalist of the last twenty-five/thirty years. There’s so many masterpieces accredited to his name.

In fact, I highly recommend “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart,” “Before We Disappear,” “Josephine,” ”Murder of Blue Chains,” “Higher Truth” and “Let Your Eyes Wander.” On his next solo effort, he should stay committed to the Euphoria Mourning blueprint. Don’t move away from that style: find a better balance when it comes to organizing the tracklist. That’s my main criticism against this album – the tempo hardly ever changes, which is a rarity for Chris Cornell. He’s the king of memorable songs over unorthodox riffs and time signatures. He could still focus on his acoustic material but just apply some more musical diversity – maybe utilize a full-fledged band on some tracks to create more compelling dynamics. This album is also best served in intervals: don’t try to digest it all in one sitting. During my first listen, I desperately felt the need to take a break and listen to “Slaves & Bulldozers.” Give these songs a chance to leave a lasting impression since the songwriting quality is there.

For Soundgarden fans, I hope they work with Brendan O’Brien on their next record. Higher Truth features Chris Cornell’s best vocal performances since the late 1990s. One could hope that Cornell’s delicate approach on Higher Truth means Soundgarden will go in a darker direction. Without question, O’Brien will help them achieve some ridiculously heavy guitar tones, especially since he mixed their 1994 masterpiece Superunknown. This collaboration is long overdue. And the best thing to take away from Higher Truth – Cornell still writes thought provoking songs and his voice is as captivating as ever.

Rating: 7/10

======================================================================================================================================== Anthony Toto is a senior writer and associate music editor for Pop-Break.com. He holds a BA in Journalism and Media Studies from Rutgers University where he graduated Magna Cum Laude. He has worked with some of the world’s most renowned artists including The Black Keys, Taking Back Sunday, Korn, Slayer, Anthrax, and Pierce The Veil. If there were five adjectives to describe his personality, they would be “Metalhead,” “Rocker,” “Ninja Turtles,” “Batman,” and “Power Rangers.” He has a strong background in new reporting, blogging, interviewing, social media marketing, storytelling, and editing. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyMToto.