By David Browne
Updated November 22, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

Kurt Cobain’s distressing angst has returned by way of his diaries, and Pearl Jam, on the comeback trail, seem to want our love again. But nothing quite makes you want to retrieve that faded Lollapalooza T-shirt from the thrift-store pile like the sound of Chris Cornell once again in full-throated yowl. On Audioslave, his collaboration with three ex-members of Rage Against the Machine, Cornell unleashes his wail in ways he hasn’t since the glory days of Soundgarden; next to him, the nu-metal pouters just sound like pouty adolescents.

The return of his lung power is as unexpected as the arrival of the album itself. On his one post-Soundgarden album, Cornell had seemingly mellowed, making him an even less likely replacement for departed Rage lead screamer Zack de la Rocha. Even Cornell appeared to think the fit was wrong: He bailed out of the band’s summer concerts, and the fate of the tracks they had laid down grew hazy. And let’s not even get started on one of the lamest monikers in recent memory.

But ”Audioslave” is more near wonder than near disaster, a music-world example of opposites supremely attracting. In an odd reversal of tactics, Cornell amps up his vocal presence while the three Rage holdovers — guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk — play with restraint, yet never diminish their firepower. The result isn’t a faux Rage album; rather, it’s the true follow-up to Soundgarden’s ”Superunknown” that neither that band nor a solo Cornell ever managed. The metal is as taut as a rubber band, avoiding the congested tangle of earlier Rage. The more contemplative songs (echoing the work producer Rick Rubin has done with the Red Hot Chili Peppers) are simultaneously open-aired and brooding; ”I Am the Highway” is cut from the same sulking, serpentine cloth as ”Black Hole Sun.”

All of which is bad news for Rage fans who crave Morello’s guitar-as-turntable moves and de la Rocha’s political orations. Morello’s solos, like his smoke-alarm-gone-haywire effects on ”Bring Em Back Alive,” add texture, not bombast, and the only hint of social consciousness lies in Cornell’s elliptical lyrics to ”Cochise,” supposedly about the Apache chief. If you’re still looking to rage against a machine, you may have to await de la Rocha’s solo project. If you want simple elevation by way of accomplished rock band, ”Audioslave” is ready to serve.