Picture the scene: Tendrils of smoke drift idly up to a hot spotlight, which concentrates its beam on a single man perched upon his stool. The small crowd, hidden by the darkness of the venue, is anxious but hushed in restraint. In the silence a note rings out, followed by another and another until they blend together into pure acoustic enlightenment. But this isn’t Clapton picking away the first strums of “Tears In Heaven” or Bob Dylan getting ready to render the audience stunned. No, this is Chris Cornell, his raw voice building a sultry monument to Soundgarden’s “Fell On Black Days.”
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For a man who’s done so much, it’s surprising to see that Cornell has anything new to offer — after all, his last three solo albums commercially flopped (and each garnered more negative criticism than the last). But Songbook is different: The album consists of acoustic covers that span Cornell’s entire career, from the grunge pioneer Soundgarden to the supergroup Audioslave and everywhere in between. Songbook seems to have found exactly the target to which it must pander — the nostalgia of longtime fans filtered through a fresh acoustic lens.
The end product — a smattering of 16 live-recorded tracks from nine different shows — is quite easily Cornell’s best solo work since 1999’s Euphoria Morning. The divine rock idol pushes an already impressive vocal range early and often. In “Call Me A Dog,” a cover from Cornell’s early ’90s tribute band Temple of the Dog, the man’s emotive howl treads ever so softly on the toes of modern blues masters. His guitar melodies reach comparable levels of emotion and are all but eclipsed by the singer’s powerful vocal belting — listeners would be prudent to pay attention on tracks like Audioslave cover “I Am The Highway” and the aforementioned “Fell On Black Days.”
Yet amid the many changes of venue, Cornell’s connection with the audience is well preserved and is occasionally depicted through the singer’s various asides between songs. “You at some point try to be a better person and change your ways to make everyone happy, and then that goes on for a while,” Cornell says to the crowd before one performance, and continues to the punch line: “And then you get to a point where you’re like, ‘Fuck it, I’m me!’ and then you write a song called ‘Can’t Change Me.’ ” Over the crowd’s cheers, the rocker launches into what might be the most impassioned tune on the record — and one that’s been colored with some context by Cornell’s vague yet revealing anecdote.
Songbook isn’t just a summation of Cornell’s body of work, even if its title suggests otherwise. In addition to one lonely new studio track tacked onto the record’s end (“The Keeper”), Cornell tackles Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The former seems like it’s always been begging to be re-done by a true-to-heart rock‘n’roller, and Cornell knocks it out of the park. However, while the latter is well executed, the change of style is a bit too abrasive.
Ultimately, Songbook allows Chris Cornell to do what he does best: scream sometimes, lilt softly at others and altogether flex his vocal muscles. Every cover is carefully reinterpreted or redefined, and the transition from the expanse of instruments of his booming power rock to a single acoustic guitar is magnificently smooth. Cornell’s latest shows that the man who used to lead entire arenas in choruses of his hits can just as easily bear his heart from a wooden stool — and possibly even do it better.