Candidates for top 10 albums of 2002: Audioslave
orry. But, as much as we wanted to brush-off this record as the pathetic product of washed-up rockers, Audioslave’s self-titled debut is too loaded with deftness to deny. Sure, I prefer Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine to this supergroup, but it’s no profligate progeny. One positive change is that, whereas the parent-bands were often prone to privilege riffage over songwriting, this record has boatloads of both.
Rick Rubin’s stark production style is unrivaled in its success rate of resurrecting teetering (or petered) careers (see, among many others, Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around, also a 2002 candidate). Audioslave’s second single, “Like a Stone” is a good example; it’s a ballad that could’ve ended up with epic strings but instead got a solid-as-cement beat (laid down by Brad Wilke) throughout. (“I am the Highway” gets the same treatment.)
The song structures are straight-forward and friendly, Tom Morello’s riffs and solos are unsurprisingly unyielding, but its Cornell’s impassioned performance that carries the record. His lyrics are often filled with violence and isolation, at times depressingly self-defeating (in the lead single, “drown if you want and I’ll see you at the bottom”) or aggressively spiritual (in the third single, “nail in my head from my creator”). Cornell isn’t shy about dealing with intense topics but he always keeps his metaphors vague enough to be super-accessible (in the forth single, “I am not your rolling wheels, I am the highway”)
It’s a tough call but this might be the highlight of Cornell’s career: for the most part, the riffs feel written around his melodies (as in “Bring Em Back Alive”) rather than the other way around (“Cochise” is an exception); his lyrics are personal but relatable; his voice functions perfectly as an instrument (see the vox only outros of “Exploder” or “Show Me How to Live”, where it sounds like he’s autotuned but he’s actually punching himself in the throat.) Good thing we didn’t end up with DMX as Zach de la Rocha’s replacement. (If you’re curious about alternative manifestations, check out Audioslave’s demos from when the band was called The Civilian Project—a bad band name but not quite as bad as Audioslave—which feature only subtle differences except for a slew of unused Morello solos.)
But it’s not just Cornell’s show. Morello is in top form too. His unique style is tested—he has to write song-specific solos that match Cornell’s melodies, rather than de la Rocha’s raps—and mostly nails it (see “Hypnotize” and “Like a Stone” although, in a few cases, his shtick feels forced.)
It’s a bummer that these guys started getting nostalgic and playing their previous bands’ material on tour. They didn’t need to. If they felt short on songs, they should have stuck to killing contemporary covers (see their surprisingly appropriate version of “Seven Nation Army”).
But at least they disbanded before they hit their “embarrassing” mid-career crises: Tom Morello’s stubborn attempt (as The Nightwatchman) to be a protest singer is a desperate Dylan homage in more than just the name—he’s actually channeling Dylan’s hero Woody Guthrie and inadvertently proves that some people without the ability to sing really should exercise some humility and keep it a secret, unlike Dylan; and Cornell’s ill-advised—but entirely underrated—collaboration with Timbaland, where he does his best to honor his apparent hero Michael Jackson. (or is it Justin Timberlake?)
But those moves, no matter how much they were meant to be authentic, alienated fans and didn’t win any new ones. So, as these guys keep getting older and continue to grasp for that critical combination of youthful energy, musical integrity, and commercial success they once had, I wonder if they’ll realize it peaked in 2002.
Audioslave was a commercial success but it was ultimately underappreciated; prior supergroup precedent led to critical condescension of the record and the band members’ subsequent careers cemented the perception that this was a desperate attempt for attention rather than an album to take seriously. Unavoidably eliciting comparisons to Soundgarden and Rage, bands that managed to remain aggressive and respected while getting gobbled up by the masses, Audioslave (starting at the top) was hater-bait: the (formerly) unfalteringly liberal Morello sold-out (and has been desperately trying to crawl his way out of debt ever since); Cornell screaming rehab-brewed lyrics could never be as articulately accusatory as de la Rocha; and ultimately this record was just too damn popular to be subversively cool.
Logic dictates that the album is stale—the ingredients are old—so that’s the copout knowledge critics dropped. But we all need to just suck it up and admit this record rocks. That includes the band.