Album Review : Chris Cornell - Higher Truth (2015)
The second album I've ever purchased was Badmotorfinger, by Soundgarden *. On cassette. I was nine years old and very impressed by their frontman Chris Cornell's tormented masculinity in the Jesus Christ Pose video. My young mind couldn't quite fathom that someone could look so cool while singing in such a high-pitched voice. My old mind still can't today. Point is, Chris Cornell's always been in my life in one way or another since then. Until May 18th that is. Some artists you fall in and out of love with. Others you grow out of. But Chris Cornell's tortuous artistic evolution always mirrored the snaky trajectory my life seemed to take. Today, I want to talk about Higher Truth, which is my favorite solo album of his. This piece won't be just a review, though.
Sorry if you're only here for the opinions.
Higher Truth is Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart, which also was the only single from the album. It features mandolin, a string section and electric guitar, which makes it the busiest song on the record. Chris Cornell sings about embracing his past heartbreaks and moving forward anyway. His incapacity to forget his broken heart will only make him stronger and more honest. It's a beautiful song and a favorite of mine. It's a song you can enjoy for its self-aware lyrics or simply for its groovy and melancholic chorus. Spotify told me it was the song I played the most last year. The rest of Higher Truth is much simpler, intimate and more lyrics-oriented. It often is just Cornell and an acoustic guitar. There is some piano here and there. A discreet rhythm section. Nothing that gets in the way of his voice and memories he lays bare on the record.
That leads us to the overarching theme on Higher Truth: self-awareness. Acknowledging your inner darkness and using it to make yourself a better person. Another favorite of mine on the album is Through the Window, where he witnesses the suffering and the longing for reinvention of an unspecified person who I believe is himself: You sold the best of yourself out/On a chain of gray and white light/One syllable at a time/You should have made them pay a higher price. The heartfelt Let Your Eyes Wander is another high moment on the album. On this song, Chris Cornell proclaims his confidence in his relationship and his understanding that love and desire are complicated, so he invites his lover to let her eyes wander because sooner or later they will come back to him. It's a beautiful love song you can't quite comprehend if you're not in your thirties and experienced crippling relationship failures.
Another fascinating song on the album is Circling, which oddly reminded me of the Beatles' song Fixing a Hole from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It's a much darker and evocative song where Chris Cornell admits being lost and seems to be giving in to his demons, yet he uses this whimsical allegory of water circling down the drain to make his point. It has a muted and surreal quality to it, like something you would hear through a motel wall at 4AM. There aren't any terrible songs on Higher Truth. The album is just a little too long for its own sake and would've been as powerful with only twelve songs instead of sixteen. Songs like Our Time in the Universe or Wrong Side aren't bad per se, but they're sticking out like a sore thumb on Higher Truth simply because they're out of place. They don't marry well with the quiet and intimate overall feeling of the album. Neither does Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart you'll say, but one is placed at the very beginning and sets the tone, while the other two are at the very end.
The music of Chris Cornell's first band Soundgarden confronted me to my own, dark and self-aware thoughts early in my life and helped map the way for the man I've become. His second band Audioslave was the soulful and triumphant soundtrack of my testsosterone-fueled twenties where I felt like I was somebody **. I've first listened to Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart on the road in January of last year and bought Higher Truth the same day and it became the soundtrack of my confused and reflexive thirties. I would be wearing revisionist goggled if I told you Chris Cornell has always been my favorite artist, but he was always there. He was always important. His solo career has always been heavily criticized. While I liked Euphoria Mourning myself, I'll admit Carry On and Scream left me cold. Higher Truth is where he finally got things right. Where he finally found a sound that embodied who he was. We tragically lost him last spring, but Higher Truth will always remain for the fans.
The thirties are a strange time where you're not a kid anymore and slowly transitioning into being an adult: some clothes start looking silly on you, you can't do crazy things without paying the price the following morning and there's now inherent ethics to everything you do. You can now be inappropriate without even trying. This is a reality I've seen reflected in Higher Truth, a record where Chris Cornell reflects on his past hardships and failures, yet decides to move on and embraced the brokenness of existence anyway. Sure, it can seem a little ironic today knowing what we know, but it's still a powerful record that speaks to anyone who suffered crippling setbacks and failures. Higher Truth feels alive, which is something few albums can claim. I love this record. We tend to forgot those who pass, but Chris Cornell deserves to be immortal.
* The first was Adrenalize, by Def Leppard. Blow me, I was eight years old. On cassette, too.
** Yeah, I skipped the Temple of the Dog chapter of his career.