A couple weeks ago, the Internet flipped out — as is its wont — over Chris Cornell’s cover of Nothing Compares 2 U.
It was as if — no way! — this brooding rocker, known for bombastic, throat-shredding anthems, was capable of nuance, restraint and sensitivity.
But Cornell has likely been battling back against that perception his entire career — and, if anything, Sunday night’s stop on his solo, acoustic “Higher Truth” tour at the Majestic Theatre, supporting his just-released album of the same name, was a clear illustration of just how predictably unpredictable his output has been over the last quarter century.
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That subtle, unspoken tension — knowing the audience was practically crawling out of its plush seats in anticipation for stripped-down versions of Soundgarden favorites — threaded through the entire set, which stretched for more than two hours over more than 20 songs.
He played his rendition of Nothing Compares 2 U Sunday, accompanied by cellist Bryan Gibson (a recurring contributor throughout the night), and indeed, the 51-year-old Cornell’s take on the Prince-written and Sinead O’Connor-popularized ballad was beautifully rendered.
It also proved to be of a despairing piece with the rest of the Grammy winner’s catalog, whether it was Blow Up the Outside World (given Ed Sheeran-esque looped layers) or Call Me a Dog.
Cornell, often with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, roamed the sparely dressed Majestic stage, giving the evening the feel of a rehearsal or an episode of Storytellers. (It was also one where anyone hoping to snag memories on their smartphone were out of luck: signs were posted outside the venue’s doors, asking attendees to help preserve the night’s intimacy and refrain from the use of their devices. The Majestic staff swept the aisles well into the concert.)
Alas, Cornell, who offered up a few wisecracks — “I’m gonna do something different tonight; I’m just going to read some poetry,” he said at the top — didn’t provide any insight into any of the songs being performed.
An explanation might have been nice for his reworking of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, which found Cornell rewriting and updating the 1964 classic for the 21st century, a genial jeremiad about politics, technology and war. It was competently done, if slightly mystifying.
But while the covers provided a glimpse of Cornell’s interests outside of the rock triumvirate for which he is best known — Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog and Audioslave — it was songs from those acts the rowdy yet respectful crowd was most anxious to hear.
Fell on Black Days, Dandelion, Rusty Cage and Hunger Strike were all recast as grim, vaguely folk-influenced songs — Cornell’s explosive, husky tenor is just as potent without a full band raging away behind it, making Sunday’s show a fascinating contrast between tender and tough.
Perhaps, as the years have slipped past, Cornell’s once-visceral angst has softened and cooled a bit. There was, after all, a certain air of cultivating respect hanging over Sunday’s performance.
As he sang early on, during Before We Disappear, “Time ain’t nothing if it ain’t fast/Taking everything that you ever had/And giving nothing in return.”
A bleak perspective, but also one worth pondering, which might be more than most give Chris Cornell credit for.
After all, even the darkest shadows have depths worth exploring.