Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell Sings Haunting Acoustic Covers of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” & Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”

I entered high school to the huge sounds of Soundgarden’s sec­ond album, Loud­er than Love, play­ing at home, in friends’ cars, on MTV’s 120 Min­utes late at night.… The band’s debut, and two pre­vi­ous EPs released on Seattle’s Sub Pop records, had not attract­ed much notice out­side of a fair­ly small scene. But Loud­er than Love—espe­cial­ly “Hands All Over”—was as hooky and alarm­ing as break­through sin­gles by oth­er emerg­ing bands on the oth­er side of the coun­try, while los­ing none of the propul­sive grit, groove, and raw, metal/hardcore pow­er of their ear­li­er work. Thou­sands of new lis­ten­ers start­ed pay­ing atten­tion.

But there’s anoth­er rea­son the songs on Loud­er than Love res­onat­ed so strong­ly (and scored them a major label deal). The album announced singer Chris Cor­nell as a vocal­ist to be reck­oned with—a singer with incred­i­ble pow­er, melod­ic instinct, and a four-octave range.

On songs like “Hands All Over” and “Loud Love,” he broke away from a fair­ly nar­row Ozzy Osbourne/Robert Plant style he’d cul­ti­vat­ed and intro­duced a sound that took both influ­ences in a direc­tion nei­ther had gone before, one full of anguish, urgency, and even men­ace.

Mil­lions more got to know Cornell’s voice after Supe­run­k­nown’s “Black Hole Sun,” but even then no one would have pre­dict­ed the direc­tion he would go in after leav­ing Soundgar­den. He inject­ed soul and sen­si­tiv­i­ty into songs like Audioslave’s “Orig­i­nal Fire” and “Be Your­self”—love ‘em or don’t—qualities we can hear in abun­dance in his cov­ers of sen­si­tive and soul­ful songs like Prince’s “Noth­ing Com­pares 2 U” and Michael Jackson’s “Bil­lie Jean.” In his unplugged ver­sion of Jack­son’s pop mas­ter­piece the song acquires the heav­i­ness and griev­ous beau­ty of a mur­der bal­lad. And I mean that entire­ly as a com­pli­ment. He brings “Noth­ing Com­pares 2 U” into “soul­ful new life,” as Slate writes, which is say­ing quite a lot, giv­en that Sinead O’Connor’s ver­sion is more or less per­fect.

Cor­nell took his own life at age 52 on Wednes­day night after play­ing with a reunit­ed Soundgar­den in Detroit, and after strug­gling with depres­sion for many years. It’s true he was nev­er laud­ed as a song­writer of a Prince/Michael Jack­son cal­iber. His lyrics were often tossed-off free asso­ci­a­tions rather than care­ful­ly craft­ed nar­ra­tives. One’s appre­ci­a­tion for them is a mat­ter of taste. But like the artists he cov­ers here, both of whom also died trag­i­cal­ly in their 50s, his music reflect­ed a deep con­cern for the state of the world. This comes through clear­ly in songs like “Hands All Over,” “Hunger Strike,” and in some point­ed com­ments he made dur­ing his final per­for­mance.

Rolling Stone has a few more acoustic Cor­nell cov­ers of Metal­li­ca, the Bea­t­les, Elvis Costel­lo, and more, and they’re all great. He did a pro­found­ly affect­ing, gospel-like take on Whit­ney Hous­ton’s bel­ter, “I Will Always Love You.” But for a true, and tru­ly heart­break­ing, exam­ple of how he could imbue a song with his “unfor­get­table vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty,” watch him play Bob Marley’s “Redemp­tion Song” at New York’s Bea­con The­ater in 2015 above, in an absolute­ly riv­et­ing duet with his daugh­ter, Toni. Cor­nell will be dear­ly missed by every­one who knew him, and by the mil­lions of peo­ple who were deeply moved by his voice.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Prince Plays Unplugged and Wraps the Crowd Around His Lit­tle Fin­ger (2004)

John­ny Cash & Joe Strum­mer Sing Bob Marley’s “Redemp­tion Song” (2002)

Watch Nir­vana Per­form “Smells Like Teen Spir­it,” Just Two Days After the Release of Nev­er­mind (Sep­tem­ber 26, 1991)

Pat­ti Smith’s Cov­er of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” Strips the Song Down to its Heart

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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