Chris Cornell Scream(Mosley Music/ Interscope) Buy it from Insound
A review of Chris Cornell’s dance record would seem to write itself, but only if one were content to castigate him for a rock-turncoat infraction whose grounds for condemnation seem rather antiquated and ultimately irrelevant. Addressing Scream within the “rockist” paradigm, as Dean Goodman does in his awkwardly gracious spiel (titled “Chris Cornell’s dance album dismays rock fans,”) for Cornell’s defensive Reuters interview, serves only to disguise the real blunders at heart of this project. The problem with Scream stems not from the mere fact that Cornell has taken a stylistic gamble that rock purists “just can’t believe,” but that he did so in a fashion that is so thoroughly phony, unexcited, and half-assed.
Scream is not so much a disaster as a wet, lazy fart. To read this record as an act of stylistic defiance (as per the smashed guitar layout,) or as a ploy for renewed relevance from a face whose time in the sun has long since passed credits it with a sense of purpose that its mechanics couldn’t carry with a pad-locked wheel barrow. That Cornell claims to have “got out of” the making of this record “some excitement” that he hasn’t “felt in years” does less to explain the outrageously uninspired Scream than it does to highlight the evident staleness of his post-Soundgarden endeavors in Audioslave (you know, the quote-un-quote “supergroup” in which Cornell “put his brooding vocals to good use.” Thanks, Dean-O). You can’t blame Cornell for his impulse to brush the cobwebs off his shoulder, but you sure can blame him for thinking he could get credit for doing it without lifting so much as a toe nail. Cornell is not trying on a new suit for his big interview; he’s overslept and resigned to throwing on a gag t-shirt in the hopes that minimum effort will glean maximum sideways glance and ironic snicker.
Lyrically, Scream reads as an Idiots Guide to Threadbare Club Music Conceits, and the fact that Cornell green lit the printing of these turgid verses in the liners gives the impression that the guy takes this project just seriously enough to make the results that much more stupefying. The record’s lead single, Part of Me, peddles a casual misogyny that is rendered all the more insidious by virtue of being so evidently performative: “Little girl/ I love when she talks to me/ … I want the girl/ But I want a lot/ Might cross my mind/ But that’s where it stops/ That bitch ain’t a part of me.” Woah. It seems as if the romantic struggle that was so obtuse and mystifying when hashed out over drop-D riffage has gotten a whole lot simpler now that you can dance to it. To be fair, Chris has some more complementary modes re: bitches. For instance, in Watch Out, Cornell, get this, treats driving at high speeds as an avatar for sexual tension with a woman of questionable standing! Lock up your daughters: “Watch out/ She’s going ninety/ In a residential zone.” How dangerous and tantalizing. But Chris, there’s got to be more to pop lyricism than the “romance as flaming chess match” scenario, right? Natch: there’s always your perennial “slandered public figure as pariah” jam, which Sweet Revenge delivers with the finesse of an air-raid siren: “Everybody out for my blood/ Everybody want my percent/I don’t want to start going off/I don’t want to start talking shit/ … Pain and suffering/ Will come to those/ When I get even.” Yikes.
On Scream Cornell treats modern pop music as a mode that demands a blunt and simplistic lyrical sensibility, but he doesn’t seem to have made it much past the “rough sketch” portion of his crafting process, so the bulk of the lines here come off as clichéd and non-descript. There’s a whole lot of “messing with/going out of” some “mind(s)/ head (s),” a “going crazy” here, some “staring into… sanity” there; we visit the metaphorical spaces of “ground zero,” “a room you love,” and both “that side” and “the far side” of “town,”; blood “run(s) cold,” is “on the concrete,” is running through his “veins” and his “head,” and is measured in a “pint”; we’re told that Cornell “can’t fly” with “broken wings,” that “silence is golden,” that an object of affection is his “second skin,” that his love “has been a sin”; a tale of love lost is treated with a painfully stale extended metaphor to end all painfully stale extended metaphors: “Baby, I used to watch your flowers grow/ Now it’s raining/ And all your flowers/ Turn to stone.” Actually, dude, rain is good for flowers. Medusa, on the other hand…
Timbaland’s beats only serve to make Scream doubly awkward and surreal. The production seems tailor made for allowing a singer who is completely out of his element to imagine himself in a “real life electronic record,” which makes Cornell come off as even more of a sad caricature. I don’t have a command of the vocabulary of pop production to adequately parse Timbaland’s insanely sterile and ham-fisted approach; suffice it to say, these sound like the kind of dance tracks that the characters in Halo would get down to, all gory spectacle without any sense of texture or depth, laser beams without color or heat, rhythm and funk as mere unit of sound without any discernable sense of momentum or pathos. “The finished product is one complete piece, with the songs blending into each other, a bit like Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon,” opines Goodman, whose comparison has a strange, unintended prescience: Scream immediately recalls the kind of aura that Dark Side now commands in retrospect, being too dismal and calculated to inspire empathy, too self-consciously affected to be enjoyed with any sense of abandon or excitement.
It doesn’t help matters that Cornell’s delivery is stilted and formulaic throughout. If you have ever ad-libbed a non-descript, overtly campy R n B verse to an overheard beat, you have a general grasp on Cornell’s approach to crooning, though you’d probably have to tone down the enthusiasm and replace it with, I don’t know, zombie? Cornell handles just about every verse on Scream in exactly the way you would imagine him handling it, no alarms, no surprises. He seems to neither be dignifying the project nor recognizing its inherent absurdity; at least one of these things needed to happen to make this record listenable as anything other than a weird curiosity, regrettable yet unmemorable. Rather than grabbing his brave new terrain by the sack, rather than embracing the stylistic gamble by treating it with the gusto and inane grandeur that would make this record, at the very least, entertaining, Cornell sounds like he is sleep walking, superimposed onto the blue-screen beats without a trace of real passion or reverenc. Scream operates under the assumption that having the ”iconic voice” that is so shamelessly advertised on the jewel case tag grafted onto these tracks is meant to spark recognition and appeal by virtue of its own novelty. The video for Part of Me captures this dynamic perfectly: Cornell is front and center, sitting in a chair, barely mustering a smirk and a non-committal head bob, while everyone else is getting paid to dance and wear cowboy hats.
Of course, Scream’s deepest gaffes are also its most fascinating features. Cornell is right in considering the album “an interesting sociological experiment,” as it provides an study in the mind of a rock-weaned middle ager struggling (and utterly failing) to grasp expressive modes that are alien to his core sensibilities. The results are less illuminating than unsettling, as Cornell has digested these features as shop-worn tropes, pieces that can be positioned to simulate a legitimate “style,” rather than treating the process as an immersion into the other, a means of refining his own craft by embracing a new set of tools. That said, the shelf life of Scream’s appeal as a curious misstep, as an indication of what modern pop music sounds like to someone who evidently does not appreciate or understand it, is ephemeral. Why is Trapped in the Closet, another outrageously mishandled genre hop for a well known singer, so infinitely re-watchable, where Scream seems forgettable on impact? R. Kelly’s evident (and, yes, insanely narcissistic,) enthusiasm for his creative impulses is super contagious, and the results are so shamelessly absurd and disjointed that the Ed Wood effect of ambition v. pay-off allows for an incredibly appealing and occasionally endearing display. No such tension between intent and delivery comes to the aid of Scream: the record sounds phoned in, plain and simple, and its awkward concessions to cliché, its trash heap lyrical conceits, and its dopey production have a cumulative effect that would be insulting if it weren’t so transparently uninspired and uninteresting.19 March, 2009 - 17:01 — Tom Whalen