Album Review: Chris Cornell, ‘Higher Truth’
From the moment he embarked on a solo career with 1999's Euphoria Morning, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell exposed himself as a bandleader who, not unlike Perry Farrell or Sting, had dominated the songwriting in his former band but had also utterly depended on his old bandmates to give his music teeth. With his new album Higher Truth, though, Cornell finally carves out a space for his voice and songwriting to shine on their own merits without veering as far out of his element as he did on his 2009 Timbaland-produced album Scream. Though on paper the acoustic-based arrangements that Cornell goes with here would seem to indicate a move back towards safer, more conservative ground, Higher Truth manages to be a more decisive step into new territory than he took on Scream.
Cornell's lifelong affinity for R&B and soul music reared its head as far back as Soundgarden's early-era cover of the Ohio Players funk classic "Fopp" – and has become increasingly more apparent in his solo work. With Higher Truth, however, Cornell takes a left turn into rustic British folk while blending vintage Crosby, Stills & Nash-style American folk-rock with light electronic touches. Using mandolins, acoustic guitars and piano throughout, Cornell varies the extent to which he delves into straight pop from song to song. In fact, your own personal threshold for Cornell's poppy side will dictate your comfort level with this album.
Wherever you fall on the pop-tolerance spectrum, it's hard to deny that Cornell is staying on his toes these days. With Higher Truth, he reveals himself to be a rather nimble fusionist of the aforementioned influences. On the title track, for example, he aspires to the tone and feel of classic Elton John piano balladry but adds angular chord changes that give the song a colorful sense of uncertainty. And it says a lot that the deluxe-edition remix of "Our Time in the Universe" blends a driving bassline with electronic beats so tastefully you might not even realize it's a remix at first.
All that said, as much as Cornell focuses on various aspects of love here, for some reason he doesn't convincingly get across the emotions that come with the experience. Lyrically, Cornell has a knack for finding novel ways to express universal situations -- the wariness that comes with getting involved with a former flame again, for example, gets a clever makeover on leadoff track "Nearly Forgot my Broken Heart." And yet Higher Truth doesn't genuinely take you back to the feverish excitement of love anticipated or the gut-wrenching anguish of love lost. It would be foolish and unfair to make assumptions about how Cornell's personal life is impacting his work, but it is fair to say that he doesn't sound like an artist who's weathered the scars of romance -- at least not recently enough to give his music the charge it needs to hit where it hurts, or to lift you to the "higher truth" of the life experiences it describes.
Other than that, though, this album offers myriad sonic rewards, especially if you can abide by the once-edgy rock wailer as the part-time pop idol he's become.