June 11, 2007

Carry On: Chris Cornell's latest album

I need to begin this with a disclaimer: This is not a review. Nothing I’m writing here is a fact or a truth of any kind. I don’t know much about music, and I certainly can’t make any sweeping statements of how the rest of Chris Cornell’s fans feel about this album. These are my impressions, emotional responses, and personal critiques of Carry On, nothing more. I’m going to try to be constructive, but I ain’t holdin’ nothin’ back. That said…

"No Such Thing"- I’ve discussed the subject matter of this song at the Chris Cornell Forum and here in my blog. Apparently it’s written from the perspective of a sociopathic suicidal murderer. Very timely, in light of Columbine a few years ago and Virginia Tech recently. The metaphor of how the "rain got in and ruined it all" is nicely effective in describing the mental deterioration of the sociopath. The lyrics are very thoughtful, questioning "What gives me the right/to think that I could throw away a life/even mine?" Unfortunately, they’re also riddled with sloppy rhyming such as "invisible/impossible" and "meaningless/a mess". And one of the lines that could have been the most thought-provoking ("Maybe to lose or to save your soul, is a choice of how you fill the hole") falls flat for me. I get that he’s referring to an emotional hole, but there’s got to be some other way the line could have been worded. The song has lots of potential, but it doesn’t quite achieve it.

"Poison Eye"- It’s The Who!! Seriously, he sounds just like Daltrey on this one, and the music and lyrics have Townsend’s stamp all over them. Listening to this, I have flashbacks to the first time I saw the movie Tommy. The guitar hook and keyboards especially sound like something straight from that soundtrack. The subject matter is basically a re-tread of "#1 Zero" from Audioslave’s Out of Exile. And like "#1 Zero", this song unfortunately does nothing for me.

"Arms Around Your Love"- Top 40 Pop song. A fairly well-written Pop song, but a Pop song nonetheless. This is the first song on the album, too, in which it becomes obvious that Chris’ vocals are a bit thin. I’ve been singing along with it just because it’s so damned catchy, not because it moves me in any way.

"Safe and Sound"- And here we begin with the steel guitar obsession (or is that slide guitar? I don’t know, but it ends up being over-used on the album). Another song with great potential. Chris’ faith in a "promised land" is touching, but the question "why can’t we pull this together?" sounds a bit disingenuous coming from the man who wrote "Blow Up The Outside World". This song is like "Heaven’s Dead" from Out of Exile: I really like the verses, but I can’t relate to the sentiment of the chorus.

And this is the perfect time for me to respond to posts I’ve read at the CC Forum in which people have gushed about how Chris’ voice on Carry On has just as much range and power as it’s always had. I have to disagree. On this song and others to come, the vocals are effective emotionally, but I think he still shows some of the strain he was subject to on Out of Exile and Revelations. As a result, the soaring chorus has a constricted sound to it, as opposed to the more full-throated tone of something like "Steel Rain" from Euphoria Morning. He’s sounded so much better on tour since the album was completed that I think it’s a shame he didn’t delay the release again in order to go back and re-record some of the vocals. This song has a pretty melody, though, despite being bit on the slow side. This is another one I’ve begun singing just because it’s fun to do so.

"She’ll Never Be Your Man"- I’m really surprised by it, but this is my favorite song on the album. There’s a more organic flow between the lyrics and the melody, his voice is a bit richer, it’s catchy… and the subject matter is quirky. Not being a lesbian or a man dumped for a lesbian, I can’t really identify with it, but I still get a kick out of singing along with it. More steel (or slide?) guitar, but it works well on this one.

"Ghosts"- I can do without the falsetto. There’s a definite strain to the vocals on this one, with Chris slipping into the nasal, slightly whiny, tone that he used on the first ‘Slave album, and that made me first begin wondering what was going on with his voice. I’ve seen comments from some folks who are impressed with the long high note he holds at the end of this song, but to me it’s just too thin and reedy. I’d love to hear it live now, since his throat’s in so much better shape. Lyrically, though, the song is beginning to appeal to me. It seems to be very autobiographical and, if so, is a great statement to people who would expect him to remain musically static. The chorus is a little bouncy for me, but I’ve still begun singing along with it.

"Killing Birds"- This is another tune folks have been raving about, but it just plain disturbs me. Hearing it discussed, I was anticipating something dark and thought-provoking. Instead, the lyrics are just a sloppy mess. On first listen, there seems to be an apparent connection between the metaphor of "killing birds" and the death of the bird in "Like Suicide". Unlike "…Suicide", though, the metaphors in this one are not only incomprehensible, they’re mixed to the point of being ridiculous. The final verse in particular creates some disturbing imagery:

"If I had a web
I could sit and wait for you
Wouldn’t need a stone
I’d just poison you
And tie you up
And you would be a bird
A beautiful crested one
And your eyes would beg
But I’m just doing my job
"

Chris, dude... yer killin’ me. Ok, you’re trading in your stone to become a spider, but you’re tying up a big ol’ crested bird, so you must be one of those gigantic South American tarantula-type spiders. But since when do tarantulas have jobs? I’m sure what he’s saying is that the bird’s begging is to no avail because the spider/murderer is compelled by his instincts, but this just doesn’t work. On top of the painful lyrics, the phrasing of the vocals is choppy and clumsy. This is the second song out of Chris’ entire catalog that I just can’t listen to ("Man or Animal" from Out of Exile was the first).

"Billie Jean"- The first version of this song that I heard was from an acoustic set in Amsterdam. It was so slow and dreary I couldn’t listen to the whole thing. Then I heard Chris perform it live in Baltimore and was blown away by the more dramatic, electric version. I was very curious to find out which version would end up on Carry On. It seems to be somewhere in the middle. The tempo’s picked up a bit from the Amsterdam one, but the vocals on the verses are a bit too soft and become a bit constricted in the more emotional choruses. The current live version (check out the video from my 5/17/07 blog) is so much more effective, but I still sing along with this one because it’s almost as good.

"Hover/Scar On The Sky"- I have to be harsh again. There’s a child-like quality to this song that makes it hard for me to listen to. What I mean by that is: it sounds as if it was written by a 7-yr old for an audience of 7-yr olds. The lyrics are trite and the phrasing is again very clumsy. And his voice sounds so tight and constricted that I wish he’d gargle some saltwater and sing it again. I can almost hear this song on Euphoria Morning, but it’s just not as well-written or well-performed as any of those tunes.

"Your Soul Today"- I’m having trouble getting past the line, "Can I visit your legs?". "Can I visit your arms?" evokes an image of melting into a comforting embrace, but "…visit your legs" is just clumsy (I need a new synonym for that word). I assume it’s meant to be sexy, but it just makes me think of someone hugging a pair of disembodied legs. As a result, I’ve barely even listened to the rest of the song.

"Finally Forever"- Because of the admiration and respect I have for Chris, I am really, truly happy that he’s so very much in love with his wife. Unfortunately, I do not think that love songs like this one are Chris’ forte. Ironically, he’s written some incredible songs about love gone wrong. "Finally Forever", though, comes off as a weak Rod Stewart impression. And at this point on the album, the steel (slide?) guitar is just plain annoying.

"Silence the Voices"- I can’t even comment on this song. It’s entry #3 in my list of "Chris Cornell Songs I Just Can’t Listen To" (three tunes out of 20 years worth of song-writing really ain’t bad, though).

"Disappearing Act"- This one causes more flashbacks for me, this time to having to listen to my mom’s old Gordon Lightfoot albums. Or was it Jim Croce…? I dunno, but I’m starting to get beyond the flashbacks and into the lyrics. The more I listen, the more the imagery strikes me as classic Cornell. The rest of the song is so different that the words didn’t come across at first but, like "Ghosts", it’s beginning to have an impact on me. And again like "Ghosts", I’d love to hear him re-record it now. I have a feeling the improvement in his singing would make this song as beautiful as it should be.

"You Know My Name"- The version I ripped off the ‘net before Casino Royale was released is better, but I still really like this song. Musically, it was a surprise at first to hear Chris create music like this (with David Arnold’s collaboration, of course), but if you take it in context it’s great. It’s not a Chris Cornell song, it’s a Chris Cornell James Bond song. The lyrics fit the movie perfectly, but still have the kind of wonderful imagery that Chris is so good at. And the vocal performance is husky and less constrained. Unfortunately, though, it clashes with the rest of Carry On. I fully understand Chris’ wanting to release it as his own song instead of on the movie soundtrack, but there’s not enough hard-rocking stuff on the album for it to blend in. Oh well.

"Today" (Bonus track)- This one’s full of falsetto vocals and "do-do-do-do-do"’s that have made it hard for me to listen to. I really want to, though, because the snatches of lyric I’ve picked up so far are intriguing. If I can find the lyrics on-line (they’re not in the liner notes), this may be one that I end up really enjoying, in spite of the falsetto.

"Roads We Choose" (Bonus track)- Like "Today", I’m dying to find official lyrics for this tune. As I’ve mentioned in threads on the CC Forum, my first impression of this song is that it’s Chris’ version of the Beatles "When I’m 64", with a little of A Perfect Circle’s "The Nurse Who Loved Me" cover thrown in. It’s quirky, it’s sweet, and I’m starting to really enjoy it.

For the most part, Carry On is troublesome for me. In some cases, the songs head in a direction I just can’t follow. That's not a problem on Chris' part, though, it's my problem. In other cases, I truly believe that he didn’t think the songs through well enough. There are sloppy lyrics, clumsy phrasing, and over-used musical motifs. And I find it frustrating that his voice improved so much after the album was completed. So many of the songs on Carry On would be improved by the more full-throated delivery that he could probably give them now. I kind of get the feeling that he was just so excited about this album that he wasn’t able to be objective about the songs and take his time putting them together. If that's the case, then on the one hand, it's touching. On the other hand, it's aggravating as hell. There are some songs, though, that, in spite of how different they are, will definitely end up on a cd mix to be listened to along with the best of his work from Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, and Euphoria Morning. Carry On is just good enough for me to be eager to hear what he does next.

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