Chris Cornell is the latest rocker to unplug, releasing a solo acoustic live album Songbookthat plays almost like a greatest hits album that summarizes his work with Soundgarden, Audioslave, and his solo career (with a few covers thrown in).
Songbook suffers from the trap to make solo acoustic music languid, static, and stiff. The acoustic strumming varies little from one song to the next. You can start slowly tapping your foot from the opening notes of "As Hope And Promise Fade" and still be in time and rhythm as the closing notes of "Imagine" close the live portion of the disc. Cornell's vocal attack is more varied than his pick attack but even there, dynamic range is limited. He sings the bulk of the material in that midrange delivery we children of the '90s remember so fondly and he can still pierce ears and hearts when he reaches for that upper register shrieking howl. He doesn't go there often either because of the portentous seriousness of the pace and mood or to further it.
What's odd and welcome is hearing Cornell more chatty with crowd than his reputation or the music presented would indicate. He can be self-effacing with a modicum of humor. He can also sound unprepared, lost, or self-conscious during the rare, brief interludes when he pauses to introduce a song.
If you're still with me, you might think I'm going to bury the record or that I already have and you're preparing to call me names in the comments section. I guess we'll find out who made it to the end because here's the changeup: I like Songbook.
Hearing the songs in this context exposes more than a few flaws in presentation. It reveals a songwriter who has tackled a variety of subjects throughout a career that has spanned decades, including the September 11 terrorist attacks, his struggles with alcohol, as well as the rage and alienation of youth so prominent in the Soundgarden canon.
I never liked anything he did outside the band as much as I loved what he did with them, but songs from every phase of his career are part of me. Several of those are performed here. I'm not sure I like these versions better than the more familiar but like them I do. In fact, my favorite performances tended to be the songs I already liked in their prior incarnation. They were great songs to begin with, strong and substantive enough to withstand being stripped to their basic elements.
Cornell didn't bill the record as a retrospective but it comes at a time when he seems to be looking for his next musical direction. He finally reunited with his brethren in Soundgarden for a reunion tour and there have been rumors of a new record from the Seattle quartet but I'm starting to wonder. Instead of releasing a live album from the reunion tour, the band issued Live On I-5 from their Down On The Upside Tour (their last tour before breaking up and reuniting). Instead of a new Soundgarden record, we have this collection culled from a run of solo dates with more likely to be scheduled in 2012.
I wish I could say Songbook opened my ears to songs I wasn't as familiar with or didn't love at the time of their initial release, but that didn't happen. Instead, I re-lived and re-loved songs that have long been a part of my past just as it seems Cornell did and that makes this a worthwhile experience and experiment while we wait to see what happens next.