Looking back at how the late Soundgarden frontman catalysed the grunge scene, shook up alternative rock conventions and quietly gave back to society across his four-decade career
As the instantly recognisable and highly influential frontman of grunge pioneers Soundgarden, Chris Cornell played a crucial role in spearheading the sound and aesthetic of the so-called ‘Seattle scene’ of the late 1980s and early 90s. But where various warning signs helped cushion the blow of the untimely passing of his peers in Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Scott Weiland, Cornell’s sudden death at just 52 is particularly heartbreaking news.
A musician who refused to be simply another golden calf or casualty of a scene that he helped usher in at the turn of the 1990s, Cornell sidestepped the snares of the age over his long career, proving time and time again to be a versatile and uniquely powerful musician whose legacy, altruism, and knack for sonic rebirth can’t be overstated. Having left an imprint on countless vocalists via his uniquely impassioned, range-defying vocals, his 30-year career and craft (which, after Soundgarden, took in the supergroups Temple of the Dog and Audioslave as well as a successful solo career that distilled the essence of his art) explored fierce alternative rock, understated balladry, and some first-rate soundtrack work.
As the music world comes to grips with his sad passing, we remember just a few things that made him an icon to so many.
HE WAS A PEERLESS VOCALIST
Above all else, Cornell will be remembered for one thing: that voice. The jewel in the shimmering crown of every outfit he’s fronted, Cornell’s four-octave vocal range could veer between masterfully searing and deeply expressive in the blink of an eye. A trailblazer at leaping between baritone, tenor, and falsetto with apparent ease, there was an element of exhibitionism to just how impressive he could belt it out.
But just as much as he could certainly howl, Cornell could sing – and how. Where his earlier output finds an artist who often borders on possessed, his later output (not least on four solo albums that explored more acoustic territory that quietly grappled with mortality, faith and personal becoming) sees exceptional tonality and timbre take centre-stage. Just as he all but self-exorcised on any number of Soundgarden’s finest moments, from “Spoonman” to “Outshined” and far beyond, he equally excelled at taking a step back and letting the innate soul of his voice hold sway.
Towards the end of his career, Cornell naturally struggled to leap freely within his once boundless range, but he was philosophical about the change. His self-awareness about the development of one’s vocals ensured that he was always the master of his own destiny, maturing as a vocalist whilst revealing the depth and colour of his vast palette: “As time has moved on, I have less range and less ability to easily go in and out of different registers, but I feel like I have a much better ability to emotionally connect with any song,” he once said.
HE WAS A CRUCIAL CATALYST FOR GRUNGE
Sure, the tale is as old as the day is long, but we’d be remiss to take for granted the vital role that Cornell played in ushering in the North West alternative rock scene of late 80s that would swiftly mutate into the unique countercultural phenomenon that was grunge. While the claims of Green River, the Melvins, and ‘Godfather of Grunge’ Neil Young are well and truly staked, when Cornell and the rest of Soundgarden sat down to sign a contract with Jonathan Poneman of Seattle imprint Sub Pop back in the Summer of 1987, the foundations were laid for the likes of Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and others of their ilk to collectively soundtrack the flannel-clad turn of the decade.
While Green River would disband and breed two of the genre’s biggest names in Mudhoney and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden's first two albums, Ultramega OK and Louder Than Love, pioneered the scuzzed-out ripening of the grunge sound and aesthetic, which they would then hone in mercurial – and very successful – fashion on the likes of Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. Flanked by more opportunistic stalwarts of the scene, the beating heart of both grunge’s indomitable rise and Soundgarden’s very own story was Chris Cornell, whose unmistakable sound and presence was both pure and potent from start to finish.
HE WAS AN UNDERSTATED PHILANTHROPIST
Beyond his four-decade, genre-spanning career in music, Chris Cornell was also a philanthropist who raised millions of pounds for charity. Alongside his wife, Vicky Cornell, he spent years raising funds and partnering with charitable organisations to mobilise support for children facing tough challenges, including homelessness, poverty, abuse, and neglect. And testament to Cornell's inborn humility – something that also defined his towering musical output – most of this philanthropy was intentionally private. He may not have been the ‘spokesperson’ of a generation (that would, of course, be a very reluctant Kurt Cobain), but Cornell was one of its most open-handed figures, ensuring his legacy will be as much about what he did off the stage than on it.
HE WAS A RESTLESS INNOVATOR
Perhaps more than any one figure in the echelon of modern rock, Chris Cornell linked the past and present in consistently new and intriguing ways. Beyond Soundgarden’s blatant-yet-colossal bearing on the advent of 90s alternative rock, he constantly re-affirmed his reputation as an artist of real, genre-bending versatility for more than 30 years. From his teaming up with future members of Pearl Jam to form the iconic Temple of the Dog back in 1990 (having toured last year in celebration of the 25th anniversary of their self-titled album) to his diverse soundtrack on the likes of The Avengers, 12 Years a Slave, Machine Gun Preacher, and Casino Royale (for which he penned the theme, “You Know My Name”) Chris Cornell was an innovator who simultaneously honoured his past while always looking forward for new sounds and challenges.
HE EXCELLED IN HIS SECOND COMING
Even for an artist who clearly traded in the currency of rebirth and reinvention, the arrival of Audioslave in 2001 wasn’t as much a new-fangled collaboration than an event in itself. Featuring Cornell and three-quarters of Rage Against the Machine in guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk, the band arrived onto the scene with their self-titled debut album in 2002, heralding yet another guise of Cornell. It divided critics, but listening to the album with fresh ears 15 years later finds the frontman in typically inspired form, leading a pack of trailblazers who had (if truth be told) always had their past glories stacked against them. Whether you love, hate, or merely like the project as a whole, if your hairs don’t stand on the back of your neck listening back to “Cochise” today, you’re probably beyond helping.