Euphoria Morning, Chris Cornell's Unexpected Masterpiece

Chris Cornell, in 2014
Chris Cornell, in 2014
Photo by Jim Bricker

This summer, we saw one of the most exciting tours of 1994 come through Houston when relatively recently reunited bands Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails became a tag team for a super show full of all their greatest hits and songs from their new records that nobody cares about. By all accounts, it was a barrel of fun.

However, the 21st of this month marks the 15th anniversary of the release of one of the most enigmatic releases associated with those bands: Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell's first solo record, Euphoria Morning. Unfairly maligned upon release and forgotten quickly thereafter, it remains in the top tier of Cornell's output. In fact, I'd argue that it is his greatest album, Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog releases included.

REWIND: Nine Inch Nails at The Woodlands, 8/16/2014 Soundgarden at The Woodlands, 8/16/2014

First off, let's get this out of the way: Cornell's post-Soundgarden output is certainly a mixed bag. His Timbaland collaboration Scream was one of the worst things I've ever heard. I think we can all agree that Audioslave was a big bag of sighs and wasted potential. They had a few good songs, but nothing remarkable.

Then there was Cornell's other, completely forgettable solo record, Carry On. When the most exciting things on your record are a Bond song and a Michael Jackson cover, you may be somewhat creatively wanting. Just a tip.

Euphoria Morning, Chris Cornell's Unexpected Masterpiece

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However, Euphoria Morning came out right on the heels of Soundgarden's breakup, and before that their most experimental record, Down on the Upside. For a band that used to be as heavy as the song "Gun" then subsequently traded in some grunge cliches, Down on the Upside showed a surprising adeptness for melodic rock, blues and psychedelia.

It was arguably the most experimental album released by any of the grunge pioneers, in a year when Pearl Jam was trying to recapture their punk roots after a whirlwind flirtation with arena superstardom. Kurt Cobain had already passed on and Layne Staley was MIA, leaving Alice in Chains high and dry.

Soundgarden, on the other hand, was all over the place, recording an unexpected masterwork. It was a startling new direction, which unfortunately met with the cruddy reception and sales figures one would expect. Then they broke up, and the album's esteem increased dramatically.

In the meantime, Cornell disappeared for a few years in the haze of alcoholism, and showed up again with Euphoria Morning. For the record, he recruited musicians and songwriters Alain Johannes and the now-dearly departed Natasha Shneider of the band Eleven to collaborate with him.

Eleven was a weird choice to write with. Then again, a few years later, Cornell was writing with the guys from Rage Against the Machine and after that, Timbaland. This man will work with anyone. However, Shneider and Johannes left an indelible mark on Euphoria Morning. Truly, Cornell has never been able to capture the flare for the psychedelic, chilled-out yet sultry lounge style they brought to the table again.

Despite their large contributions though, Euphoria is mostly Cornell in his purest songwriting comfort zone. The seeds of this style were sown early on when Cornell released his first solo songs on the Singles soundtrack, and there were more hints on Temple of the Dog's lone record. He clearly had aspirations towards something totally outside the realm of grunge and hard rock even then.

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Cornell's ear for pop and blues-rock make Euphoria Morning an unforgettable experience. Soft-rock jams like "Preaching the End of the World" or "Wave Goodbye" could sound completely trite, but thanks to Johannes and Shneider's excellent contributions and Cornell's perfect melodies, they remain catchy, addictive and even touching. "Wave Goodbye" could be saccharine, but instead it's a sincere and moving tribute to Jeff Buckley.

The acoustic songs are enhanced by Cornell's stunning adeptness at pop songwriting as well. Though they tend closer to mournful blues or lilting tributes to love, they still manage to worm their way into your brain upon repeated listens.

There are, of course, the requisite rock tracks. "Pillow of Your Bones" is outside Cornell's standard rock playbook, but has a heaviness to it. "Flutter Girl" is an old Soundgarden outtake that Johannes and Shneider mercifully touched up with their own style instead of trying to ape Kim Thayil's potential contributions. "Can't Change Me" was the closest thing to a radio hit here, and may be the least interesting track on the album.

Perhaps the greatest example of Cornell's work on this album, and the track I would use if I had to sell it to someone, is "When I'm Down." This haunting piano-blues ballad soars with its emotional, uplifting chorus, bolstered by Cornell's roaring vocals. It has moments of jagged guitar work over the top of beautiful choral melodies, as Cornell sings his ass off like any of his greatest Soundgarden peaks, and a simple, sad piano tune to bob your head to.

This is Cornell stretching his legs beyond anything anyone ever expected of him, yet totally bucking expectations. Euphoria Morning may be the only record he ever released where he wasn't searching for anything that wasn't already within him. It's such an amazing work because it's his own statement, freed from outside influences.

That's the tragedy of Cornell's career. Be it Audioslave, Scream or a Soundgarden reunion, it has always seemed like he's chasing some elusive idea of what people want from him instead of being his true self as a songwriter. Euphoria Morning is one of those rare moments where Cornell exudes authenticity by laying all his strengths and weaknesses on the table, and allowed him to accidentally create an alt-rock masterpiece.

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