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Chris Cornell "Songbook" Album Review

The former Audioslave and Soundgarden frontman exorcises some ghosts of the past through a sixteen track collection of finely tuned acoustic brilliance.

rating:5

As lead singer for Soundgarden and Audioslave, Chris Cornell carved out a reputation as one of the finest rock singers of his or any generation, and in Songbook, his brand new acoustic live solo album, he proves once again what that reputation was founded on. Cornell takes up his acoustic guitar and leads the listener through sixteen careful chosen tracks with the engaging presence of a man completely at ease with his own abilities. Cornell's voice has always been soaked in soul, as well as carrying an irresistible smokey edge that injected poignancy to even the most bold rock songs he lent it to in his former roles, and it has never sounded as good or as hard-hitting as when teamed up here with a simple guitar as company. Most importantly, for an artist who was somewhat cruelly criticised from some quarters about his decision to genre-hop for 2009's Scream (a critically lambasted relative failure, but underrated criminally in my opinion), the decision to strip back the famous songs is a statement outside of the concerns of genre. It is proof that a voice can sell a song of any type, provided that voice in convincing and charismatic enough to carry a different agenda within the song than originally composed. And quite frankly, Cornell's voice could convince me of most things. The playlist is exceptionally well conceived, featuring stripped bare, emotionally piquant versions of his most famous former releases, including "Like A Stone" and the beautiful, brilliant "Black Hole Sun" as well as two perfectly pitched covers. On the first - of Led Zeppelin's "Thank You", the singer seats in the easy company of Robert Plant, forefronting similarities in the two men's vocal qualities that have never occurred so insistently before, and in the second, a hauntingly affecting reimagining of John Lennon's "Imagine" he confirms that even the most iconic songs can become something entirely new in his hands. There are brief snatches here and there of Cornell's effortlessly cool charisma, in his spoken introductions to a number of the tracks - like the off-hand offering that "Imagine" is a perfect Easter song, and his anecdotal explanation prologuing "Can't Change Me" - and more than anything Songbook feels like a personal insight into his inner workings. We are not only experiencing his song choices stripped back, but also he himself, and listening to the album will undoubtedly make fans who missed out on the tour lament the fact (as it did with me). Tagged onto the end of the album, but not out of place, is the studio version of Cornell's new acoustic track "The Keeper" (which is also featured on the soundtrack to Machine Gun Preacher) which perfectly knits together his past with his bright new future. And as a major fan of his voice, I can only hope that the direction is similar to that hinted on "The Keeper". In the context of that track's inclusion, "Songbook" feels more and more like catharsis for Cornell, who up until this point had toured with material ostensibly belonging to Audioslave and Soundgarden amongst his solo work - now, in their new guises, the songs feel more like Cornell solo tracks and the execution hints that they never needed the guitars and drums and bass to back up his vocals in the first place. Cornell's triumph here is in suggesting newness and individuality in songs we have heard a hundred times before, in investing someone else's songs (even those formerly sung by him) with touches of the newer, more mature Chris Cornell. And in doing so, he manages to make certain songs sound even better than the originals - "Can't Change Me" certainly sounds better, while "Ground Zero" and "I Am The Highway" sound like they have been infused with an entirely different message of personal emotional rawness. Songbook is a triumphant tribute to a voice - as Cornell proves despite the absence of a hard-hitting backing band that bare rock songs can remain potent on the strength only of a vocal. There aren't many rock vocalists currently working who could achieve what he did on the Songbook tour, without the protection of a band or the safety blanket of playlists and compositions learnt from years of touring the same material, and Cornell makes a mockery of those limitations in others. He is so explicitly in-tune with his voice as an instrument - able to make it soar, ornate with flourishes when desired (though never over-bearingly so), and to cut it all the way back to reinforce the message of the lyrics or the tone of a particular passage. And in this stripped back format, you really get the sense of how well he understands the mechanics of vocal work, of punctuating sound with other sound, and quite frankly it is a joy to be shown those skills. Tracklist As Hope And Promise Fade Scar On The Sky Call Me A Dog Ground Zero Can€™t Change Me I Am The Highway Thank You (LED ZEPPELIN cover) Cleaning My Gun Wide Awake Fell On Black Days All Night Thing Doesn€™t Remind Me Like A Stone Black Hole Sun Imagine (JOHN LENNON cover) The Keeper Chris Cornell's "Songbook" is available to buy now on Universal.
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