Chris Cornell: A voice with a glint of tragedy

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Chris Cornell sang as if he were bearing the weight of the world. Whether he was fronting the ferocious hard rock of Soundgarden or backed simply by an acoustic guitar, his voice — now silenced in a suicide — was spectacular by any reckoning. It was a voice that could sail above the grunge barrage of Soundgarden, with an attack to rival the band’s churning guitars; it was also a voice that gave modest acoustic ballads an existential gravity. At the bottom of its nearly four-octave range, Cornell’s voice was a baritone with endless reserves of breath and the seething tension of contained power. He couldn’t be more convincing than when he sang one of his definitive songs, “Rusty Cage”, with Soundgarden: “I’m gonna break my rusty cage and run,” he howled.”

As it rose, higher and higher, Cornell’s voice could sustain a melody through the fray, or it could confront hard-rock turbulence with grunts, rasps, wails, bitter moans and, at the top of his range, full-bodied shrieks that admitted no weakness. Even when he was singing a long-lined melody like “Black Hole Sun”, another of his masterpieces, there was no comforting croon in his voice. It had a perpetually torn edge, a glint of tragedy.

Cornell could have used that remarkable instrument and his rock-star looks to play the standard heroic frontman: a chesty, cocky figure like two of his obvious influences, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and Paul Rodgers of Free. But he came from a later generation, one that had grown up on punk iconoclasm as well as metal virtuosity and that was far too self-conscious for the old rock machismo. As the main songwriter for Soundgarden — both on his own and supplying lyrics and melodies for other band members’ riffs — Cornell helped forge grunge: rock that used all its power to question rather than to exult.
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