An icon of American music and figurehead of the early 90s alternative rock movement, Chris Cornell reportedly passed away in his Detroit hotel room on Wednesday night aged 52; medical officials have now confirmed the singer-songwriter had taken his own life.
Throughout his tenure as lead singer of the seminal grunge quartet Soundgarden and hard rock supergroup Audioslave, Cornell was consistently lauded throughout his lifetime as one of the all-time great heavy metal frontmen for his distinctive, powerhouse vocals – which effortlessly spanned a range of almost four octaves, from moody, soulful baritone to earth-shattering banshee wail – and captivating, often bleak lyrics that touched upon a wide number of subjects, including nihilism, addiction, religion and mortality.
Cornell was born in Seattle, Washington in 1964, and was first introduced to music at the age of nine after finding a number of Beatles records in the basement of a nearby neighbour’s house. This was to be the beginning of a lifelong obsession; he reportedly spent the next two years solidly engrossed in the band’s back catalogue, and would soon come to use rock music as a coping mechanism throughout his troubled teenage years, during which he battled prolonged periods of reclusive anxiety and depression.
Cornell’s love for music eventually saw him join Seattle-based cover band The Shemps, where the singer originally met bassist Hiro Yamamoto and guitarist Kim Thayil. After that short-lived project’s dissolution, the three remained in contact and began jamming together, forming Soundgarden after settling on Matt Cameron as their permanent drummer.
The band quickly began making a name for themselves in their native Seattle thanks their embryonic combination of punk ferocity and dark, murky riffs that proved both unique and captivating whilst allowing Cornell’s charismatic vocals to cut through the mix. Soundgarden soon signed to the then-burgeoning (and now legendary) Sub Pop label, releasing their debut EP ‘Screaming Life’ in 1987 – featuring their doomy, Black Sabbath-indebted debut single ‘Hunted Down’, which introduced the world to Cornell’s nihilistic song-writing (“dogs, they lead the chase as you are bleeding”, he croons menacingly, “they run to hunt you down”) in spectacular fashion.
Soundgarden’s cult following continued to grow as they became torchbearers of the fledgling ‘Seattle sound’ along with their peers Nirvana and Alice in Chains, and they released a follow-up EP ‘Fopp’ and their debut full-length ‘Ultramega OK’ – which, despite being underproduced and underpromoted, would later earn them a Grammy for ‘Best Metal Performance’. Cornell participated in the collaborative project Temple of the Dog around this time – most notably duetting with Eddie Vedder on the classic single ‘Hunger Strike’ – in tribute to his late friend, Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood. It would be the primal, Zeppelin-on-steroids metal of their 1989 major label debut ‘Louder Than Love’, however, that would properly make the music world sit up and listen to Cornell’s unmistakeable voice.
By the time their landmark third record ‘Badmotorfinger’ dropped, the grunge movement had hit full swing; following Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by a month and representing a massive leap forward in the band’s writing – the band had truly learned how to meld pummelling riffs and innovative time-signatures with distinctive, often accessible melodies by this point – the album catapulted Soundgarden on to the charts. Lead single ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ was a punishing aural assault musically, whilst Cornell’s lyrics and its accompanying music video were such a seething critique of religious zealotry (“you stare at me in your Jesus Christ Pose/arms held out like you’re carrying a load”, he snarls) that the track was banned from MTV for blasphemy. Nevertheless, by the time the band joined contemporaries Pearl Jam and Red Hot Chili Peppers on the 1992 Lollapalooza tour Soundgarden’s unflinching brand of hard rock had unequivocally broken the mainstream.
Cornell and the rest of the band were bona fide rock stars when the dark, oppressive ‘Superunknown’ hit the airwaves in the spring of 1994. Bolstered by the radio-friendly single ‘Black Hole Sun’ – Beatles-y, kaleidoscopic ballad that nonetheless retained healthy does of Cornell’s apocalyptic lyrical fixations – and its nightmarish video, the album was both a critical and commercial smash hit, selling nine million copies whilst seeing the band branch out into a much wider variety of styles and tempos than before.
Struggling to cope with following their masterpiece, Soundgarden released ‘Down on the Upside’ – an altogether lighter affair at Cornell’s behest, which caused tensions within the band – in 1996, before disbanding the following year. Undeterred, Cornell released his debut solo album, the reflective ‘Euphoria Morning’ in 1998, garnering a Grammy nomination for the hypnotic, heavily acoustic-based single ‘Can’t Change Me’ in the process.
Cornell’s true second wind would come in 2001, after producer Rick Rubin suggested he meet up with the musicians from Rage Against the Machine – Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk, who had just parted ways with their own frontman Zach de la Rocha – for a jam session; instant chemistry would see the new quartet write 19 songs in just three weeks, including the ghostly ballad ‘Like a Stone’ and the rip-roaring ode to rebirth ‘Cochise’, and the newly christened Audioslave released their classic rock-indebted, self-titled debut the following year to unexpected commercial success.
However, the new band’s beginning wasn’t without obstacles; after years of struggling with alcohol and prescription drugs – the singer reportedly began regular substance abuse at the tender age of 13 – Cornell checked himself into rehab, causing a slot at much-anticipated Ozzfest to be cancelled. After regrouping, the supergroup released a further two albums: the mellower ‘Out of Exile’ (featuring the fan favourite ‘Be Yourself’) in 2005 and the retro-sounding, funk-leaning ‘Revelations’ in 2006, before quietly parting ways.
Cornell returned to solo work soon after, writing and recording the theme tune the Daniel Craig James Bond reboot Casino Royale – the gritty rocker ‘You Know My Name’, standing in stark contrast with the Bond themes of old – which also featured in his second solo outing ‘Carry On’. 2009’s Timbaland-produced ‘Scream’ followed, a record which saw the singer ditch the guitar-heavy rock that made his name for slick, electronic beats and R&B numbers; unsurprisingly, it would prove to be Cornell’s most polarizing work, commonly characterised as a rare misstep in his career.
Soundgarden subsequently reformed in 2010, headlining Lollapalooza and releasing the warmly received reunion album ‘King Animal’ in 2012; despite recent reports of the band being in the midst of recording a follow-up, this was to be the band’s final album due to Cornell’s tragic and unexpected passing. The singer’s final major record was the solo outing ‘Higher Truth’ in 2015, which had been regarded as something of a comeback for the singer-songwriter.
Towards the end of his life, Chris Cornell had become rightly respected as both an elder statesman of the American rock landscape, and an artist who had successfully managed to remain relevant and hugely influential through shifting musical climates thanks to a fearless embrace of change and reinvention.
Though his lyrical content – and the nature of his untimely death – paints the picture of a troubled soul, his expressive, larger-than-life voice was nothing less than a force of nature, and one that will be forever remembered for delivering some of the most exciting and boundary-pushing singles of the late 90s and early noughties.