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There Was No One Else on Earth Like Chris Cornell

The Soundgarden vocalist was an icon with one of the greatest voices we'll ever hear. He'll live on Grunge Rushmore for eternity.

Grunge was a perfectly named genre. In one syllable, it conjured a lightless constellation of filth. Sludgy guitars, primal howls, and second-hand flannel. Opiated Seattle art goons gloomily monopolizing American teen angst for a half-generation—inspiring 100,000 regrettable tattoos and threatening to put the nation's barbers out of business.

All genres are partial fictions, but some seem truer than others. And Soundgarden was platonic grunge—head banging, mythic, and absorbent of those violent tantrums of adolescent frustration. In 1991, their lead singer Chris Cornell, then 27, claimed that there wasn't a day where he wasn't angry. He died two days ago, now 52, having tragically discovered only temporary respites in the intervening decades.

Rimbaud's narcissistic myth of compulsory derangement has been invalidated too often to appear remotely sound. But occasionally you're forced to consider a particularly tenebrous force like Chris Cornell, found with a noose around his neck in a Detroit hotel room. A fracturing punctuation to a brilliant career—a paralyzingly sad end that re-contextualizes the source of the subterranean depths and supernatural highs that his voice channeled.

Forget sepulchral anthems like "The Day I Tried to Live," "Like Suicide," "Fell on Black Days," or "Pretty Noose." You can listen to an underrated folk ballad like "Seasons" from Cameron Crowe's Singles soundtrack to hear the forlorn sensitivity underneath the sex-god posturing, that desolate Puget Sound loneliness, those always lurking demons so artfully concealed.

Guru was right: it's mostly the voice. Cornell was capable of an alternately seraphic or satanic croon, which could make mercury freeze or boil depending on his whim. He uncoiled neck-snapping roller coaster octaves that could plummet from a manic winged falsetto to a scabrous baptized-in-hell blues cover of Howlin Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning." Robert Plant and AC/DC were the obvious analogues, but Cornell had no country for elves-in-the-forest mysticism or skintight metaphor. There was pain, opacity, and unreconstructed agony. Grunge not glam.

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