Chris Cornell - Higher Truth

I can hardly bring myself to write anything about many albums these days. I blame myself, I blame you, I blame the artists but most of all I blame ‘the way things are’. We have pushed the world into a place in which magic no longer exists when it comes to music. Whereas once upon a time I would buy an album and dine out on it for weeks - a real killer could last months and the absolute gold, a lifetime - now we are plugged into the mainframe directly, much like the rest of the world, an album is lucky if it gets a few days of my attention before I move on to whatever the next one is.

Oddly enough, those where the days when artists were also able to dine out - at least once in a while.

But this week brings with it a taste of the way things used to be. It brings a genuine desire inside of me to sit down and say something worthwhile about an album I am going to live with in isolation for as long as I possibly can. Purposely disconnected from said mainframe, I dropped Higher Truth onto my laptop, onto my phone (and therefore into the car) and pretty soon, it will be here on vinyl too. I can stream it to my hearts content, but buying it seemed like the decent thing to do because six days in, I have decided this album falls into the category of ‘real’.

I can’t remember the last time I was excited about the release of an album. Not a simple excitement, but genuinely looking forward to its release date and most of all, for everybody to go away and leave me to listen in peace.

So what gives? Higher Truth is far from what I expected. Truthfully here, I’m not sure what I expected. I was prepared for anything and that’s the right way to be with Cornell - I guess you need to have a good perspective on things to understand why. A solo album is hardly likely to come on like a daisy-cutter when Soundgarden are still very much alive and well. What would be the point in that? Secretly, I am always hoping for something close to Euphoria Morning (orMourning as the re-released album has just been titled). Back when that came out in 1999, I widely claimed it to be one of the greatest albums of all time and I will stand right next to that comment today. I never get tired of it, I’m always pleased to see it - maybe it got me at the right place, at the right time. 
Sometimes that’s all an album has to do to embed itself inside of you. What I (we) actually get with Higher Truth is about as close as Cornell could likely get to it sixteen years later. Like many things in life, I didn’t know I wanted this until it was given to me.

Anyway, I currently stand accused of overusing the word beautiful - an accusation I’m going to gracefully accept and utilise one last time before I move on to find something else - but this truly is all that and more. When it comes to Cornell and his artistic output, there's always a lot of focus on either a) Soundgarden or b) his voice. The former is expected. The latter is valid. I think he’s the best vocalist at work in the world today but one thing that is constantly overlooked - to the disgrace of the entire world of music writers - is his ability as a lyricist. It’s a hard thing to nail to the mast but trust me on this - he is swigging wine and being fed grapes with the best of them.

I once posed some questions about lyrics and songs to my (small) circle of friends and was stung in the eye by how many of them don’t listen to lyrics as the larger part of a song. I don’t even understand how such a thing is possible, but over time I've also come to realise that some people call leafing through a magazine and looking at the pictures, ‘reading it’. A part of me wants to ask the question as to whether or not they listen when people speak or do they nod their head to fill in the irritating sound until it’s their turn to speak again. It's a question I keep to myself because I don’t think I would much like the answer. For those of you who recognise yourself in that statement, maybe you’ll be better served whipping through the next few paragraphs - in reality, if you are one of ‘those’, I doubt you got this far anyway.

Snatching phrases from the pool where the finest of songwriters like to hang out with a fishing line knotted around their big toe, there’s some real poetry to play with here. What I found on Higher Ground is some honest to God 'old school' craft - the kind that only works within the parameters of the rhyme of the song that it comes dressed up in. 

Back in the days when it didn’t matter what you looked like and songwriters didn’t need to be pretty to be appreciated for their talents, they used to tell stories because being able to play your chosen instrument was not a choice - it was a prerequisite. They would tell stories that mattered. Stories about touchy subjects like edging towards starting an affair with a woman by answering a classified ad that said she likes drinking Pina Colada in the rain - and later finding out it was your girlfriend all along. 

I’m not for a moment saying Cornell is in this vein but he knows his heritage well enough (of course he does) to have been influenced by an album like, say, Springsteen’s Nebraska or the more commercial aspects of Nick Drake - or maybe Jeff Buckley - and wanted to bring them into his repertoire for future use. It makes good sense if the Songbook-like solo touring is to continue too... which it is.

I checked.

See, what I got with Higher Truth was more than I bargained for. I was hoping for a more or less acoustic based album with songs I could learn to love - and if I was really lucky, songs that would make me lean back in my chair and wish I had written them - which is exactly what happened.

I leaned back in my chair and said to myself ‘Man, I wish I had written these songs.’

The first time I said that was when I heard this:

“How hard can it be
To share your life with me?”

On paper, it doesn’t look like much of a lyric, but strapped to the rest of the song - Before We Disappear - it’s like a magic spell. There’s not a person on earth who hasn't thought those very words at some point in their life… and so it goes on, song after song resonating against my soul like I’ve been re-strung into the universal God-mind of punishing melancholy.

Thus far, I’ve avoided listening to him speak about the album in any form. I made a point of reading no interviews or press too. All I wanted was to hear what he had to say in its purest/intended form - pretty much like you would back in the seventies and eighties when it took something like six months before you got to hear an artist tell you it was ‘the best album we’ve ever made’. My time in the universe has served me well in its education when it comes to the arts - it’s not the artist that gets to choose how good something is.

Not that this is relevant here. So far as I know, Cornell doesn’t tend to walk that road and is not really one to sit back in his own chair while justifying his creation. He simply lets it go and moves on to whatever comes next - or at least that's how he makes it appear and that's the important part.

I digress. A lot. The whole joy of this album for me is that it’s built around the one thing I love most about music and that’s the portrayal of the songwriter as a vulnerable human being. No matter how strong you present yourself to the world, life always has more than a few branches ready to spring back in your face when you least expect it. (The absolute opposite of this is the other reason I love music and that would be to portray yourself as an infallible being who has every scrap of his own shit together on all fronts, but that’s a whole different story).

Take a listen to Harry Nilsson performing Without You - that’s the pinnacle of songwriting for me. That’s a man destroyed kicking his heart up and down the street not caring who’s watching. It’s not a pretty sight but it’s something that needs to be seen to take on board exactly how vulnerable we all are. To deny this is to deny being alive.

And that’s something Higher Truth delivers in spades. The one slight deviation may be Murder of Blue Skies in which Cornell makes a valiant attempt at reclaiming his soul from purgatory:

“I can’t wait
To never be with you again.
And I can’t wait
To lead the life that you’re not in.”

Ten days in, I think I can confidently say it’s not so much an album for those whose hearts are currently breaking - it’s more an album for those who remember what it’s like to have walked down that road. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we're all walking wounded from the shrapnel in our hearts. 

It’s what makes us human and the very reason poetry works when written from that place. It’s about being naked in the presence of others and not feeling weak but strong in the process. I can’t help but read this much into Higher Truth. There’s no other way it can have been intended otherwise he may as well have moved straight along with the next Soundgarden album and given me a reason to feel something else entirely.

More than anything, Higher Truth is a battle-cry from the soul of a man hyper-aware of his own mortality. From start to finish, it’s about nothing but the limited amounts of love at work in the universe, how easy it is to lose love when you think you have it and maybe also the fact that there are no answers to be found no matter how hard you look, no matter how much you bleed and no matter how much you put yourself on the line for it in the first place.

But hell, it's good to be alive no matter how much it may hurt.

September 2015

Sion Smith