For a sign of how much younger things are skewing in the world of former Soundgarden/Audioslave lead singer Chris Cornell these days, look no further than the Irvine, Calif., stop of Linkin Park‘s Projekt Revolution Tour. At 44, the hard-rock stalwart is wooing a new demographic, a fact underscored by the Hot Topic-draped teens baking in the sun, killing time before his set by texting profundities like ”WAT UP MAGGIE” to be displayed on giant screens around the stage. Cornell plays along, letting fans choose a song for him via their highly evolved thumbs, and duetting with Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington on ”Hunger Strike,” the 1990 Temple of the Dog tune he originally sang with Eddie Vedder.
Yes, Chris Cornell is embracing ”the kids” — and for his third solo effort to succeed, he’ll certainly need them. Scream, due Nov. 4, is a surprising full-album collaboration with Timbaland, whose overstuffed R&B stylings for the likes of Justin Timberlake cater to a generation that considers Soundgarden ”classic rock,” if it considers Soundgarden at all. Depending on your perspective, the merger of these two aesthetic extremes is either evidence of a desperate has-been pandering for attention, or a refreshing disregard for pop’s genre boundaries. Cornell knows it’s a risk. ”I don’t think it’s going to be like, ‘It’s not bad…,”’ he predicts of the response. ”I think it’s gonna be ‘This is absolute garbage,’ or ‘This is genius.”’
Until now, Cornell’s career has followed a handy pattern: 1984-1997, front Soundgarden, generate hits, break up because of artistic differences. 1999, release solo album, Euphoria Morning, to tepid reception. 2001-2007, front Audioslave, generate hits, break up because of artistic differences. Summer 2007, release solo album, Carry On, to tepid reception. According to that pattern, Cornell should now be the frontman for, like, Velvet Revolver. Instead he’s made a WTF?-inducing album with the man whose golden touch launched the career of Missy Elliott, turned the folky Nelly Furtado into a club queen, and helped mold Timberlake into a respectable artist.
Given Cornell’s lack of solo success and Timbaland’s recent track record, it’s easy to be cynical about the whole to-do. ”It is what it is,” says Cornell before his Projekt Revolution set. There’s gray in his widow’s peak now, his notorious temper replaced by a sage calm, his pale blue eyes steadily scanning the blank spaces of his trailer as he explains the impetus behind the biggest artistic gamble of his career. ”I get scared that maybe there’s something I can’t pull off,” he says earnestly. ”I’m motivated by the challenge.” He calls Scream ”a leap of faith.” Suddenly, you want to believe him.
The album does have convincingly organic roots. Cornell’s brother-in-law is a Parisian club owner, and he floated the idea of remixing songs off Carry On; Cornell’s management approached Timbaland, who said he’d do only original material. A phone call between the two men sealed a full-album deal. ”It seemed inspired to me,” Cornell says of the partnership. ”And it didn’t sound that crazy to a lot of people.”
NEXT PAGE: Step inside the studio with Chris Cornell and Timbaland. Then, hear a track from the collaboration, and rate it.