The elusive freedom of Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2005. By Simon Jacquier from Vernayaz (near Martigny, Valais), Switzerland.

“If this doesn’t make you free, it doesn’t mean you’re tied,” sang Chris Cornell on the title track from Superunknown, Soundgarden’s 1994 breakthrough album. I have been listening to Soundgarden pretty constantly in the wake of Cornell’s apparent suicide two weeks ago. Superunknown is lyrically stream-of-consciousness, like James Joyce and Jackson Pollock had a musical baby. Yet listening to it again now, after many years of having it up on the shelf, it is clear to me that there is an emergent theme. These are songs about freedom. Or, to be more precise, these are songs about a longing for freedom that seems impossible to fulfill.

After a suicide, it is easy to read into everything someone ever did as a sign. This is particularly tempting with Superunknown, given the dark melancholy in much of the lyrics. The album ends with the song Like Suicide which is hard not to hear now as chillingly prescient. But this was an album that came out more than twenty years ago. It was neither Soundgarden’s first nor last record, and I would argue that it was not even their best. I did not know Cornell and I cannot even begin to understand what was going on inside of him on the night that he died. I certainly do not think I will discover the answer by reading the tea leaves of his discography.

Nevertheless, listening again to Superunknown has been its own reward. It hangs together as a whole surprisingly well, despite being a collection of disparate songs. It is reminiscent in some ways of the Beatles’ White Album. Like much of Soundgarden’s work, the songs on Superunknown have the intense energy and guitar work of hard rock and metal but with a deeply pleasing melodic core. Soundgarden spent the eighties pioneering the Seattle based sound that would later be referred to as grunge, and Superunknown displays that genre at its best.

“Let it go,” Cornell sings over and over again on the album’s opening song, Drown Me. “Won’t you let it drown me in you.” Over and over again, the album expresses this same elusive desire, to be released, unchained, allowed simply to be. My Wave, for instance, is about people feeling whatever they need to feel and doing whatever they have to do in order to get through the day, so long as they do not hold anyone else back in the process. It is a vision of libertarian individualism that is worthy of the postmodern world we live in.

Yet even as Cornell cries out for freedom, he is deeply vulnerable and realistic about the costs. In The Day I Tried to Live, he follows the advice of the voice in his head that tells him to “seize the day, pull the trigger, and watch the rolling blades,” but it does not give him the sense of strength or happiness he expects. “Words you say never seem to live up to the ones inside your head,” he sings. “The lives we make never seem to get us anywhere but dead.”

The tension that so much of Cornell’s music describes is not a new one. It is the human experience ever since the fall. We sense that we are not free, that there is an unseen force in this world that holds us captive. We rebel against it, hoping to shatter the chains and find the peace in our own skin that we have never been able to find. But then we discover that the real enemy oppressing us is not outside of us at all. It is our own brokenness, driving us both to long for deep union with others and simultaneously to push others away. Our own suffering hearts enslave us in patterns of self absorption and abuse that we cannot escape, no matter how many external threats to our freedom we eliminate.

The answer to this is found in Christ, but not in a glib way. I do not for a second think that Cornell’s life would have been all flowers and rainbows if he had followed Jesus (and if I did think that, I would be as guilty of self-deception and self-righteousness as the Christian interlocutor that Cornell describes in the song Jesus Christ Pose). For all I know, Cornell may have been a Christian. In most interviews, he said that he was a “spiritual free thinker” and refused to be pinned down, but he did become a member of the Greek Orthodox Church when he married his wife in 2004.

There are moments of deep spiritual insight in many of the songs that Cornell wrote over the years. The hound of heaven was certainly on his heels, and it seems that at least on some level he knew that. Cornell told Mark Maron in 2014 that he had no idea what Soundgarden’s major hit Black Hole Sun is really about, but it is hard for me to believe that all the snakes and masks that show up in that song, only to be thwarted by the coming of the dawn, are there at random. “Heaven send hell away / no one sings like you anymore.”

The freedom that so many of us long for, not only from external threats to our liberty but from the interior tyranny of our own hearts, is a freedom that can only be found in the cross. What Jesus offers the world is a hard sell. It is not freedom from suffering. It is, rather, freedom in and through suffering, or more precisely it is freedom that gives suffering a meaning and a purpose. What Jesus takes into His own body on the cross is not merely our rule-breaking but the very substance of our broken hearts. In a godless world, suffering would be meaningless and random, but in a world in which God has become man and died and risen, our own suffering becomes the means by which we enter into the mystery of God’s grace. As we allow our suffering to be united with Christ’s on the cross, it is transformed. No longer does it define us or contain us. Thanks to the miracle of Easter, even death itself becomes a doorway to the infinite rather than a looming curse.

Suicide is a very serious sin in as much as it is a rejection of God’s love, but more often than not it is motivated not by a conscious choice but by issues of mental health, addiction, depression, or any of a host of other factors beyond our control. I wish that Chris Cornell had not killed himself, both because I lament the loss of his musical genius and because I am sad for the loss to his family. Suicide is never the answer. It does not stop the pain. But I pray that God will be merciful to him and to those who love and miss him.

I am thankful for Superunknown and for all the other beautifully sad works of art that Chris Cornell put out into the world. Despite the temptation to hear everything he did now through the lens of his suicide, I still feel a giddy roar of life in these songs. The words are cryptic and often conflicted, but the music shimmers with the energy of new life and creative hope. And that is Easter too, that a suffering song can make you want to get up and dance, that an introspective and confessional lament can be turned outward and become the very stuff of love.

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