Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, who died on Wednesday night at the age of 52, produced an immense (and immensely consistent) body of work across three-plus decades. However, his soundtrack work, both solo and with Soundgarden, revealed different dimensions to his songwriting that deserve praise and admiration.
Cameron Crowe was one of Cornell's early movie music champions. Soundgarden had two songs included in 1989's Say Anything ("Flower," "Toy Box"). In hindsight, this was a precursor to the prominent role Cornell himself played in Crowe's 1992 film Singles, both on the soundtrack and in the movie. (Incidentally, the deluxe edition of the Singles soundtrack is due May 19.)
However, Cornell and Soundgarden were all over movies in the '90s. "Heretic" appeared on 1990's seminal Pump Up the Volume soundtrack. "Loud Love" played in Wayne's World during a pivotal scene, where main character Wayne (Mike Myers) met the love of his life, Cassandra (Tia Carrere). And "Jesus Christ Pose" led off the soundtrack to the 1994 cult classic S.F.W.
Cornell's solo soundtrack work, however, allowed him to branch out and explore weightier matters. All proceeds from his latest solo single, "The Promise," are being donated to the humanitarian non-profit International Rescue Committee.
Why was Cornell's solo soundtrack work so resonant? For starters, he took a thoughtful, methodical approach to the songwriting. Cornell wasn't retrofitting existing songs into films, but writing tunes specifically to fit the subject matter and tone of a movie. The extra effort he made to ensure that he was capturing and honoring the experiences of these characters was often incredibly moving, since these songs were being written for films imbued with great political and historical meaning.
Cornell has many indelible movie moments but here are 10 of his most memorable.
"Live to Rise" (2012)Soundgarden
When Soundgarden returned from hiatus in 2010, the first new song the band wrote was "Live to Rise." Although certainly calibrated for a big-budget action movie--the production and hooks, for example, are sleek and radio-ready--the song has the same kind of metallic fury and obliterating guitar work for which Soundgarden was known in the '90s.
"The Keeper" (2011)Chris Cornell
'Machine Gun Preacher'
On the Golden Globe-nominated song "The Keeper," Cornell's love of Bob Dylan and the Beatles shines through loud and clear. Simple, feathery acoustic guitars and just a hint of rhythmic structure bolster Cornell's vocals, which have a low, resonant and soothing rasp to them.
"Mission 2000" (2000)Chris Cornell
'Mission: Impossible II"
Back in the '90s and '00s, having a song in the Mission: Impossible movie series was a badge of honor. Just ask U2's Larry Mullen, Jr. and Adam Clayton, who did a sleek, synth-heavy remix of the first movie's theme. Cornell too got into the action movie biz with "Mission 2000," an electroshocked remix of "Mission," a song from 1999's Euphoria Mourning. The re-do is actually an improvement upon the original, as it highlights headbanging-worthy flanging guitars and tightens up the song's arrangement.
"Blind Dogs" (1995)Soundgarden
'The Basketball Diaries'
This Superunknown b-side landed first on The Basketball Diaries soundtrack, but then didn't surface again until Soundgarden's 2014 compilation Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path. It's a relic that deserved to be unearthed: Like "Fell on Black Days," the song feels like a dinosaur roaming across the Earth, all rumbling low end and leaden electric guitars. It's also a summation of Soundgarden's jamming abilities, which were unparalleled around this time.
"‘Til the Sun Comes Back Around" (2016)Chris Cornell
'13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi'
One of Cornell's more obscure soundtrack songs comes from this Michael Bay-directed 2016 film. On some level, "‘Til the Sun Comes Back Around" follows a similar template as his other solo work: The tune is acoustic-driven, and boasts a surging, electronic-kissed underbelly for rhythmic heft. But Cornell sounds more like a pop troubadour than a hard rock icon, which gives this song an intriguing emotional twist and resonance beyond the movie.
"You Know My Name" (2006)Chris Cornell
Performing a James Bond theme is no easy task. Cornell's contribution to the canon, however, is an update to the classic approach. It's not a far cry from his work with Audioslave, albeit with a twist: Slashing electric guitars tango with ominous orchestral flourishes, giving the song an impressive, epic sweep.
"The Promise" (2017)Chris Cornell
The final solo single Cornell released in his lifetime is "The Promise," from a 2017 film of the same name starring Christian Bale. It's set in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire and references the Armenian genocide, aspects of which Cornell told Rolling Stone inspired his lyrics. The exhaustive and careful research he did before writing the song paid off, however: "The Promise" is deeply affecting, with Cornell's sentimental and wistful voice at the forefront of sweeping, majestic instrumentation.
"Misery Chain" (2013)Chris Cornell feat. Joy Williams
'12 Years a Slave'
Cornell is barely recognizable in this gorgeous, harmony-dusted duet with the Civil Wars' Joy Williams. That's not a knock on him, however. It's a compliment to his black-velvet, soulful performance, which gives him the air of a Rat Pack crooner. This song especially shows how Cornell's voice was taking on new, intriguing dimensions as it aged--which conjures bittersweet what-ifs now.
"Sunshower" (1998)Chris Cornell
This is one of the underrated classics in Cornell's solo catalog. A bonus track on the Japanese version of Euphoria Mourning, it also appeared on the soundtrack to 1998's Great Expectations and was a modern rock radio hit. It's of a piece with the Singles soundtrack gem "Seasons," however, both stylistically (acoustic-based psych-folk) and in its desolation-tinged lyrics.
"Seasons" / "Birth Ritual"Chris Cornell / Soundgarden
Not only does Cornell himself make an instantly memorable cameo in Singles, but the Cornell-associated cuts on the movie's soundtrack beautifully exemplify his musical duality.
His solo song "Seasons" is one of the soundtrack's best moments. The yearning number certainly owes a debt to Cornell's beloved Led Zeppelin--mainly because of its strident, Jimmy Page-esque acoustic riffs--but it also allowed Cornell to stretch out and use his falsetto range. This vocal touch only amplifies the delicate, bereft nature of lyrics such as, "Dreams have never made my bed" and "I'm left behind / As seasons roll on by."
Soundgarden's "Birth Ritual," meanwhile, is a classic example of how primal-sounding the band was early in its career. Cornell resembles a howling force of nature as he screams the title phrase in his top range while his bandmates back him up with formidable psychedelic sludge. It's best experienced cranked at top volume.