It’s been more than 15 years, and sleepy-eyed Chris Cornell still hasn’t woken from the dream of the ’90s. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Plenty of icons remain smitten with the decade in which they ruled some portion of the pop cultural conversation, even if they continue to hurtle around the sun just like the rest of us. But there’s a wax museum quality to the Soundgarden frontman that extends beyond his glazed-over expression and enduring good looks. His latest solo album, Higher Truth, sounds timeless in a way that’s both frustrating and comforting, like checking the scores and seeing that the Yankees are still in the playoff race.
The last time Cornell tried to evolve in any meaningful way, the results were disastrous. With its recycled hip-hop beats and boneheaded lyrics like “that bitch ain’t’ a part of me,” 2009’s Scream deserves a hallowed place in the Shitty Solo Album Hall of Fame, right alongside Mick Jagger’s She’s the Boss and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. The one thing it does have going for it? Cornell’s four-octave voice, which retains its slippery, bluesy magic even when Timbaland tries to drown it in a sea of synthesizers. His voice is unlike any other in rock music, and it’s the reason fans have stuck with Cornell through Scream and three full Audioslave albums, each more lifeless than the last.
Thankfully, the singer has wised up in recent years and stopped pandering to the fickle sensibilities of millennials. Compiled from a series of intimate acoustic shows, 2011’s Songbook features stripped-down versions of some of his best songs, nearly all of which go out of their way to highlight his phenomenal pipes. It’s fun to hear the whoops and hollers in the audience (a mostly older crowd, to be sure) as he performs his vocal acrobatics, as if these people came to see a slam-dunk contest instead of a quiet acoustic performance.
Listening to Higher Truth, it’s clear that the warm reception rubbed off on Cornell — and in mostly the right ways. On his first solo studio album in six years, he has recaptured some of the soft grandeur that made Euphoria Morning (or Mourning, however you spell the damn thing) such a success. The arrangements are stark and disarmingly intimate, bringing to mind confessional songwriters like Daniel Johnston and Nick Drake, both of whom Cornell has admitted looking to as influences. Producer Brendan O’Brien deserves credit for crafting a sound that suits the singer’s style, clearing out all the furniture and giving his voice an open room in which to spread out. Romantic ballads such as “Josephine” practically drip with warmth, and it’s not hard to picture that room outfitted with a crackling fireplace and bearskin rug.
All that sexiness can get a little too cute for its own good, though. The mandolin that drives lead single “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart” never stops sounding like a gimmick, and the melody is a one-trick pony that gallops but never soars. “Our Time in the Universe” attempts a similar gimmick with its lush Middle Eastern arrangements, but it ends up sounding about as exotic as a Burger King in Istanbul.
Much better is the actual meat of the album, which features fewer production tricks and some of Cornell’s most confessional lyrics to date. Scream failed to mine the quieter moments of life for inspiration, and Cornell almost overcompensates for that here. Nearly every track concerns itself with the passage of time, whether it’s expressed in terms of weather (rain and/or clouds appear as prominent symbols in at least four songs), seasonality, or the metronomic ticking of a clock. On album standout “Before We Disappear”, Cornell channels his inner metaphysical poet in a plea that echoes Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. “How hard can it be to share your life with me?” he asks in a chorus that’s surrounded by reminders of how fast the hours slip away. It’s an absurd question, but it’s also honest and openly vulnerable.
Much of Higher Truth can be described in similar terms: The imagery’s a bit hackneyed, but it’s brought to life by a refreshingly emotive performance. This really should be the template for Cornell’s solo career, and it’s good that things seem to be trending that way. Sure, the self-righteous “Higher Truth” kind of makes you want to punch him in the face, but just one track later he redeems himself with “Let Your Eyes Wander”, a mature reflection on the ups and downs of monogamy. And — just so you don’t forget that Chris Cornell is a father who loves his daughters — there’s “Only These Words”, a cutesy lullaby in the style of Cat Stevens. It’s pandering, yes, but it’s not without its pleasures.
What we’re left with isn’t an album that’s going to change the world. But it may be enough to change your opinion of Cornell, especially if you had given him up for dead after his Audioslave-induced coma of the mid-aughts. Higher Truth ironically doesn’t strive for anything higher. It stakes its claim in the rich soils of the middle ground, a place that values intimacy above innovation, quiet truths above the ones that scream. And it’s all the better for it.
Essential Tracks: “Worried Moon”, “Before We Disappear”, and “Let Your Eyes Wander”