Rebounding from the emancipation of Audioslave and coming ten years after his last high-end roar with a certain you-know-who group of Sabbath-studying Seattleites, Chris Cornell has released a messy, sprawling rock disc of populist, singer-songwriter Seattle-lite. Mixed with references to the sounds of grunge, psychedelia, blues, and country without actually being any of them, Carry On is a nebulous collection of far-reaching, rarely grasping stylistic detours that result in fourteen surprisingly MOR dead ends. Surprising not just because it comes from the man who wrote the bulk of such ’90s rock benchmarks as the pummeling Badmotorfinger (1991) and the richly layered kinetics of Superunknown (1994), but also because he would be willing to release this turgid mess in the wake of those albums.
Carry On opens with the loud incongruence of the Stone Temple Pilots-type guitar riffs of “No Such Thing,” a song that sounds as if were written to be an arena-sleek showcase for Cornell’s famed howl rather than to satisfy any sort of artistic impulse. The album then leapfrogs from more generic rock to the acoustic melancholy found on his solo debut, 1999’s Euphoria Morning, to the simply bizarre: an inexplicable, unnecessary dirge-like cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” that, once it strips the melodic dance-pop original of melody, dance grooves, and pop, finds audacity does not preclude total failure. A little less bizarre but just as frustrating is “Safe and Sound,” a mom-safe dad-rock ballad that lazily echoes late-period Eric Clapton (less the God of 461 Ocean Boulevard than the hollow golden calf of Back Home). Soggy horns and soullessly competent “blues” guitar lines accentuate this overcooked gospel tune, which sounds like it was written more for a Starbucks mix CD than a cathedral, and it is indicative of the album’s overall failure to combine Cornell’s influences and interests into a cohesive — let alone interesting — sound.
Enmeshing yourself in a quagmire as deep and strange as Carry On makes it difficult to determine what exactly went wrong. Was it the lazy predictability of the shockingly adult-contemporary songwriting? The occasional torpidity that comes with maturity (see also: Dylan’s Planet Waves or Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, among others)? The sadly strained nature of Cornell’s once powerful voice, which sounds as if it’s fallen from fearless shriek to an age-reduced scrape? Or was it simply a quick and panicked example of lifestyle maintenance, now that his ex-Audioslaves have gone back to being millionaire socialists? While it’s not entirely clear, I’d suspect it’s all of the above. Whatever the answer(s), though, one thing remains certain: Never has schizophrenia sounded so safe or so boring.