Why Watching Chris Cornell Sing “When I’m Down” Is Like Watching Picasso Paint

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On June 23rd I tweeted, “Watching Chris Cornell sing “When I’m Down” is like watching Picasso paint.” I wrote that just as Cornell was belting out, “and I’ll fly so far away. Until the night blurs my vision and I have nowhere to roam” live from the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore, MD.

Here’s what I meant:

The song “When I’m Down,” is track number five on Cornell’s debut solo record Euphoria Morning. As Soundgarden entered a hiatus period, Cornell burrowed down and put together one of the more courageous solo records in rock music history. It was different from your typical hard driving, customized time-signature, Soundgarden material. This was Cornell at his core.

There are two records that changed my life. Pearl Jam’s Ten, introduced me to the fact that music can be emotional and passionate – at a time where my ignorance made me think it was simply fun, entertaining and something that accompanied social settings. Sorry, “Nothing but a good time, it don’t get better than this,” but yes it does. Cornell’s Euphoria Morning taught me that music can be personal. It’s an outlet and it’s for you. And you alone. Just like all 12 songs on Euphoria MoUrning where for him.

I took this record as an honest statement from the artist – for better or worse, this is how things are for me right now and this is how I feel about it. I respected and greatly appreciated that.

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Cornell began working on the record in 1998, in collaboration with Alain Johannes and the late, great, Natasha Shneider of the band Eleven. Shneider plays piano on “When I’m Down,” in addition to providing the beautiful and complimentary backing vocals on the record. Eleven would then serve as the band joining Cornell when touring on the Euphoria Morning run.

As Cornell has embarked on solo Songbook tours the past five years, we’ve seen the resurrection of many Euphoria Morning tracks. This has included a stunning version of “When I’m Down.” During this rendition, Cornell usually drops the needle on a record, playing the backing piano track while he sings over the top live. This isolates Cornell’s voice, allowing you to get completely submersed and mesmerized in all the raw elements that make it out of this word. “When I’m Down” covers a scale of vocal notes that’s seemingly miles long. The journey of the song starts slow, with soothing tones before it breaks like a wave full of genuine emotion. Throughout a live performance, you glimpse at the historic art and structure plastering the theatre walls and you realize how Cornell’s voice fits perfectly within that environment.

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artwork by dolms

In Baltimore this past June, at 2:50 into the song, Cornell’s grabbed the mic off the stand, graciously strutted to the front of the stage, closed his eyes and froze the crowd from head-to-toe as he erupted into, “You want to be understood, yeah, well I understand.” To me, it’s one the most powerful lyrics in Cornell’s entire catalog. It’s truly enhanced by the fact that it’s presented by his voice alone. It has a – roared through a megaphone type of feel, except with Cornell, … it’s without a megaphone.

If there’s a blueprint to follow when releasing a “solo” record, Euphoria Morning is it. From the artwork and press shots to Cornell chanting, “It’s taking over,” as the curtains close on the record with “Steel Rain,” its a true collection of art. I’ve always envisioned “When I’m Down” to be the foundation the rest of the record built upon in terms of sincerity and the power of vulnerably. “When I’m Down,” is the fearless leader that looks to the rest of the tracks and says, “It’s OK, follow my way.” Furthermore, it showcases an instrument in Cornell’s voice that cannot be bought at Guitar Center. It can’t be downloaded or streamed online, or manipulated by a computer. It’s multidimensional. The singing makes you feel the voice, and the record represents the act of having a voice to speak your mind. You’re reminded, that’s exactly what Cornell exercised to the fullest with this entire record.

Euphoria Morning was released 17 years ago today. Cornell continues to bring the truth and nothing but the higher truth to each and every show he takes on. When the lights dim and you hear Shneider’s opening piano notes glide into “When I’m Down,” you know she’s smiling, as for a moment, Cornell turns the majestic theatre into his personal woodshed and displays a world of art right before your eyes.

“What say you now?”

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Photo and featured painting by: Chris Figat

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