LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Chris Cornell is getting a kick out of angering his fans.
The former Soundgarden singer has stunned the rock cognoscenti with his whimsical decision to record an album with Timbaland, a hip-hop producer whose clients include pop stars Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado.
"Scream" is both the title of his third solo outing and a reflection of the howls of indignation. Online forums ignited with bitter denunciations (and occasional defenses) of the album long before it hit stores on Tuesday via Interscope Records.
Critics were vexed by all the beats, synthesizers and processed vocals, especially given Cornell's impeccable rock credentials. Soundgarden was one of the biggest bands of the 1990s, with its metal overtones helping pave the way for the "grunge" revolution. After the Seattle foursome broke up in 1997, Cornell put his brooding vocals to good use in Audioslave, a "supergroup" rounded out by the three musicians from the archly political band Rage Against the Machine.
His two previous solo releases were stylistic departures, but not of the same magnitude as "Scream." The Los Angeles Times said it was "a fascinating but heartbreaking document of how many wrong decisions one can make in writing and performing a record." Rolling Stone called it "a strange mutation."
Cornell is savoring the outrage.
"That part's kinda fun," Cornell, 44, told Reuters in a recent interview. "If someone is up in arms about the idea of an artist that they really care about doing something that they just can't believe, it begs that question, 'Well, what is it that you would want? Would you then want predictable, comfortable salad that gets reproduced year after year?'"
At any rate, Cornell has performed the album in its entirety at about a dozen concerts, and says the audience response has been enthusiastic.
"It's the most that I've seen guys with beards rocking back and forth to a rhythm," he said.
He considers the album "an interesting sociological experiment," since people seem to be more concerned about who is making the music rather than the music itself.
Of course, that was not the original intention. He just wanted to make music, and does not view himself as the Ray Charles of his generation, boldly traversing musical boundaries.
"It was really more of a whimsical moment of having a conversation about the possibility of making this album and deciding, 'That'll be interesting. Let's go do that.' So I didn't really expect it to be taken any differently."
It did not hurt that Timbaland recited some obscure Cornell lyrics back to him during their first telephone conversation. They adjourned to Miami early last year for six months of sessions, during which Cornell sang mostly to basic drumbeats. Timbaland added the adornments afterwards, with Cornell leaving him to his own devices. The whole thing was pretty easygoing.
The finished product is one complete piece, with the songs blending into each other, a bit like Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon." A fanfare introduces the first tune, and the sound of tape running loose signals the end.
Many tunes, like "Sweet Revenge" and "Take Me Alive," are angry or defiant. Half the songs include the word "blood." But Cornell cautions against drawing a connection to his turbulent domestic life. In recent years, he has been engaged in a bitter divorce with his first wife, who managed Soundgarden.
"Whoever's singing the song, I never really think of as being me necessarily," he said.
Cornell has a busy tour itinerary planned, and relishes the prospect of confounding the fans. It reminds him of Soundgarden's early days in the '80s, when post-punk audiences reacted angrily to the band's unfashionably heavy guitar riffs.
"That feeling of going out and really having to prove it, to perform new music where it's not going to be unanimously loved ... there's some excitement that I got out of that that I haven't felt in years."
Editing by Jill Serjeant