In 2009, Chris Cornell’s iconic status was set in stone, thanks to his membership in three legendary bands. And then, he took a radical musical turn that alienated many of his fans and even made him the source of ridicule. But was Scream, released on March 10, 2009, really so bad?
For months leading up to the release of Chris Cornell’s Scream, fans were wondering what the album — produced by hip-hop/R&B/pop svengali Timbaland — would sound like. Timbaland (real name Timothy Mosley) was most well known for his genre-bending work with R&B singer Aaliyah and producer/hip-hop artist Missy Elliott; he’d also worked with Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg, as well as pop artists Justin Timberlake, the Pussycat Dolls and Nelly Furtado. The artists that were stylistically closest to Chris Cornell in Timbaland’s discography were Bjork and Duran Duran.
Cornell, meanwhile, was coming off of 2007’s Carry On, his first album since he abruptly left Audioslave. Carry On was a solid album, but was met by a changing musical landscape with a shrug. Cornell came from a school of artists who seemed ambivalent about press and radio (at least they created that impression), but by the early ’90s they were getting it both ways when the alternative rock scene bum-rushed the pop charts. In 2007, though, there were fewer offers to shrug at. Music was changing, and Cornell obviously felt it was time for a change as well. Working with Timbaland would certainly be a change.
Still, fans were worried. Months before the album’s release, Cornell performed “Scream” in May of 2008 at the Fashion Rocks TV broadcast, as a part of a medley with One Republic and the Pussycat Dolls, bizarrely narrated by Timbaland who produced all three acts. The event gave the impression that Cornell’s album was just one-third of Timbaland’s fall fashion line. That impression of the album had nine months to linger in the public’s minds before Scream ultimately dropped in March of 2009, with a cover showing Cornell smashing a guitar. The symbolism wasn’t lost on anyone.
And the album’s opening was something of a shock: “Part of Me” felt like a pop or a hip-hop song, and lyrically, the song seemed to cater to a crowd that was way more mainstream than those who caught on to Cornell via “Hunger Strike,” “Black Hole Sun” or “Like A Stone.” Those songs had pop success, but “Part of Me” seemed to pander to the most basic pop audience. The lyrics “She was so friendly/I had one too many/And now that they tell me/She was rubbing up against me/But I swear it never meant a thing/She was just a fling/There’s no other woman who does it like you” felt way too basic for Cornell, as did the refrain “That bitch ain’t a part of me” (he was, after all, the guy who had parodied dumb lyrics in Soundgarden’s “Big Dumb Sex” two decades earlier). To make it worse, the video looked like Justin Timberlake’s leftovers.
The next few songs weren’t quite as out of character, but “Time” and “Sweet Revenge” weren’t standouts either. It’s likely that many fans gave up on the album three tracks in.
But the patience of the die-hard fans was rewarded, as Scream does start to improve at that point. “Get Up” is still very much a Timbaland sonic production, but electric guitar pokes through the electronic soup, and it leads into one of the album’s highlights, “Ground Zero.” That’s one of the songs that frequently made Cornell’s solo acoustic shows in the subsequent years. On his live acoustic album, Songbook, his introduces the song, explaining that he wrote it in the aftermath of 9/11: “(I was) thinking about trying to figure out how we could make the world better, and not stupider.” Lofty aspirations for a pop-aiming album, and they might have gotten lost on an audience upset over his new direction.
Next is “Never Far Away,” an earnest and powerful love song that benefits from Timbaland’s cinematic production. “Take Me Alive” would be a solid B-side, but that leads into one Cornell’s greatest solo songs, “Long Gone,” a song where Timbaland’s production was slightly less heavy-handed than on other parts of the album. Still, a new rock mix was created (and used in the music video); it might sell the song to those who didn’t like the Timbaland-ness of the album version. Cornell was clearly not looking to repeat his past successes, and when you experiment with something new, it may not always work. Here, it did: this song was a great step forward for him.
Ditto for the title track, a song that felt like the perfect collaboration between Cornell and Timbaland. All in all, Scream included enough great songs to have been an excellent EP. Alas, a weak opening track and bad advance PR hurt the album. So did the echo chamber of social media, which reacted with glee to Trent Reznor’s infamous tweet: “You know that feeling you get when somebody embarrasses themselves so badly YOU feel uncomfortable? Heard Chris Cornell’s record? Jesus.” (Reznor later apologized for that).
After two decades of fronting loud, guitar-based bands, Cornell clearly needed to try something new. And regardless of whether or not you like Scream, it definitely allowed him to explore some avenues that he hadn’t gone down before. The time away seemed to rejuvenate his love for loud, guitar-based rock. After Scream, he reunited with Soundgarden for some powerful tours, and a great final album, 2012’s King Animal (that album’s “Rowing,” one of his greatest songs ever, certainly took some influence from Scream). He’d also go on to release his finest solo record, 2015’s Higher Truth, and even reunite with Temple of the Dog for their first-ever tour, and with Audioslave for one final gig. Even if Scream wasn’t quite Cornell’s Achtung Baby, it did contain buried gems and led him to an incredible final act.
— Brian Ives