In many ways Chris Cornell was the last standing survivor of grunge. Whilst other bands had burnt out in a blaze of glory (Nirvana), became pompous and bloated (Pearl Jam) or just disappeared into wilful obscurity (Tad, Mudhoney, The Melvins etc), Soundgarden entered the later half of the nineties as the undisputed figureheads of grunge. Key to Soundgarden’s success was their front man Chris Cornell, possessing both a phenomenal gravelly voice and a shamanic stage presence he has quite rightly come to be regarded as one of the best ever front men in the history of American alternative music. However, with Scream, Chris Cornell may have just ruined his reputation.
Made in close collaboration with R&B super producer Timbaland, Scream represents a dramatic departure from the alt-rock of both Audioslave and his two previous solo albums. In fact departure isn’t really a big enough word to describe the change in direction on this album. The only word that comes close to describing it is bonkers. Timbaland’s involvement is not simply as a big name producer but rather as a full musical collaborator. As a result Scream is not just a glossily produced rock album but a fully fledged crossover, which somehow manages to be less than the sum of its parts. It fails to either rock like Cornell’s previous work or have the mass appeal of Timbaland’s mega-hits with Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtardo. Instead it is an extremely confused record, each song is a dense jungle of confused beats and synths that sound like they have been lifted from an old Super Mario game. The insanity begins right from the off with a swirl of eastern sounding synths and a vocoder growling something indistinguishable. When the song begins proper it starts sounding like music made by Justin Timberlake’s inappropriate uncle. The biggest revelation is when Cornell sings “That Bitch ain’t a part of me” over and over in the chorus and you suddenly realise that he is a million miles away from the glory days of Badmotorfinger and Super Unknown.
Things don’t get much better, the songs are mostly indistinguishable from one another, as insipid tired beat follows insipid tired beat. This isn’t helped by the way that most of the songs on the album are designed to flow into each other. Instead of making the album feel like one seamless piece of work it just reinforces the fact that Timbaland’s production here is so uninspired and frankly poor. It doesn’t help that Cornell’s voice has been poorly recorded so that at best it sounds cheap and at worst it becomes lost among the multi-layered noise of the song. What is most striking is that listening to the album you could quite rightly be forgiven for thinking that Chris Cornell is merely a guest singer on someone else’s album. It is at times impossible to see any trace of his influence on the record. Even his lyrics, usually one of his strengths, are too often tired and clichéd, as if he is singing off someone else’s song sheet. The one saving grace is the final hidden track, ‘Two Drink Minimum’. Relatively stripped down, it is a gentle bluesy lament that allows Cornell’s vocals to shine through, although I would be surprised if many people were still listening by the time it appears at the end of the album.
Ultimately the album fails because it is over laboured on several levels. Firstly the attempt to joylessly splice together rock music with chart R&B seems artificial and forced. Where others like Gnarls Barkley and Gorillaz have succeeded in uniting tribes with their musical alchemy, Scream will appeal to nobody, serving only to highlight the flaws of each genre. The greatest shame is that the album is bereft of any memorable songs, there is no ‘Black Hole Sun’ or ‘Give It To Me’. Very disappointing indeed.