Soundgarden thrilled their legions of fans when they announced their unexpected reunion in 2010, but frontman Chris Cornell continued to pursue his solo career, with his first one-man tour of the US resulting in the acclaimed live album, Songbook.
The charismatic singer-songwriter first ditched the muscle and volume inherent in Soundgarden’s music in 1992, when he contributed the all-acoustic ‘Seasons’ for the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s acclaimed movie Singles. After that, he’d been looking for further opportunities to create music in a similarly low-key setting.
“I’d also recorded a version of [Soundgarden’s] ‘Like Suicide’ [that way] and ‘Spoonman’ [from Superunknown] was written acoustically too,” he revealed to Spin magazine at the time of Songbook’s release, on 21 November 2011. “The original demo was just acoustic guitars and hitting pots and pans. I thought that recording an album in that style was a good idea. But it wasn’t what I ended up doing on [debut solo album] Euphoria Morning. So, in the back of my mind, it was a promise to fans and myself that I wanted to make good on.”
Cornell turned his vow into a reality in 2011 when he embarked on an extensive 25-date acoustic tour of the US and Canada during that year’s spring and early summer. In fact, he enjoyed these intimate shows so much that he later performed gigs in South America and Australasia, though the recordings which appeared on the Songbook album were sourced from a half dozen of the dates on his initial US jaunt.
“My only criteria for picking these songs was that they needed to sound on tape just like they sounded live in the room, theatre or club,” Cornell told Spin. “So there are songs with mistakes – I hit the wrong chord or something like that. It was all about feeling and sounding just like it did in real life.”
Rather like Nirvana’s widely-acclaimed MTV Unplugged In New York, Songbook was a revelatory experience for the listener. Armed with just an acoustic guitar and his sumptuous, acrobatic voice, Cornell stripped back his trademark arena-sized theatrics in favour of subtlety and intimacy, and weighed in with some of the most compelling music of his career.
Though envisaged primarily as a low-key release for his fans, Songbook’s wall-to-wall quality soon attracted widespread attention. It cracked the Top 75 of the Billboard 200 on the back of enthusiastic critical appraisals (including a rave review from Consequence Of Sound, which declared the album to be “a beautiful showcase of [Cornell’s] career that any music lover should have”) and it remains a stalwart cult favourite to this day.
“It blows me away that there’s this willingness by an audience – continually, night after night – to sit and listen to a guy singing a song, playing acoustic guitar quietly and not making a sound,” Cornell confessed to Billboard when Songbook was first released.
“Then between songs they’re shouting out [requests] and actually having a conversation with the guy onstage. It’s really something I didn’t expect and it’s something I really like. I didn’t realise it was going to be as special to me as it is.”
Songbook can be bought here.