Melancholy as Muse: Christian Spirituality and the Music of Chris Cornell

This article is some six years in the making. 

Some celebrity deaths shake the general public to the core. Robin Williams, Betty White, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Prince, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston. These figures seem to exist, in our imaginations, without any sort of seams or stitches that tie them to fearful mortality. They just are, because we want them to be. For me one of those celebrities was Chris Cornell. 

Chris Cornell was one of the strongest vocalists to come out of the grunge scene in the late 80s to early 90s, first leading the short-lived Temple of the Dog with Eddy Vedder (the soon-to-be lead singer of Pearl Jam) before becoming the frontman of grunge powerhouse Soundgarden. After five albums and many conflicts between bandmates, Chris left and formed Audioslave with members of Rage Against the Machine, sans their own lead singer Zach de la Rocha. In 2010, Soundgarden reformed, producing their first new material in over a decade. All of this development came to a crashing halt when Chris committed suicide after a show in Detroit, Michigan on May 18th, 2017. A lifelong battle with depression had concluded with his untimely end at the age of 52, leaving much of the music world in shock. 

But this article is not primarily a means for me to mourn the loss of a musician whose music I deeply enjoy, though I imagine it provides a healthy means of doing so. I never knew Chris personally, and I do not claim to have any sort of parasocial relationship with the man, as much of a Soundgarden fan as I am. My purpose is to dive through the music and to contemplate how melancholy brings the Christian life full circle, even in spite of brutal loss. 

For much of his life, Chris Cornell was a fallen-away Catholic. Much of his early music, as with that of many other grunge artists, reflects the complicated relationship between grunge and religion, as well as between himself and religion. On the Temple of the Dog album, Chris demonstrates frustration with proselytizing individuals in general on the (very funky) “Your Savior”, while then also singing the mournful power ballad “Say Hello 2 Heaven” to honor his close friend Andrew Wood, the lead singer of the band Mother Love Bone, who had died of a drug overdose in 1990 at the age of 24. This tendency followed Cornell into Soundgarden, when he addressed the hard-hitting “Holy Water” primarily toward Pat Robertson and other similar televangelists. On the other hand, the erratic “Jesus Christ Pose” attacked the tendencies of artists to make social martyrs out of themselves, comparing their antics (specifically those of Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction) to someone accusing others of driving nails into their hands. 

But the defining aspects of Chris’s songwriting, even in this early period, were a painful sense of self-awareness, guilt, and melancholy. Despite the wildly growing popularity of grunge with kids who felt that society had alienated them, the Soundgarden frontman demonstrated in his music that he did not like being considered an idol, a savior, or any sort of heroic figure. Rather, he considered this concept a burden, something demonstrated in signature songs like “Outshined”, “The Day I Tried to Live”, and “Fell On Black Days” on the Superunknown album. This personality trait was one shared among grunge artists-Kurt Cobain, for example, hated that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” made Nirvana famous-but in Chris’s writing it appeared differently. 

A unique aspect for him among other grunge artists was that Chris Cornell and his music stayed inherently grunge, but also allowed for fans to see a spiritual evolution of that same man and his music over time. Kurt Cobain died at the age of 27 in 1994, and Layne Stayley of Alice In Chains fame died in 2002 at the age of 34. Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver fell too hard into drugs and alcohol and mostly stopped producing music after 2008. Out of the biggest stars of the grunge scene, only Pearl Jam’s Eddy Vedder remains as of 2023, though he has gone to explore other genres of rock alongside grunge. Many artists who came from the post-grunge and nu-metal scene after the 90’s did create very introspective, tell-all lyrics. However, with only a few exceptions, the lyrics were also often reflective of a snapshot of the frustration and rebellion of young rock fans in the early 2000’s. Whether they were Disturbed’s “Down With the Sickness”, Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff”, or Korn’s “Freak on a Leash”, many of even the most popular songs of the post-grunge and nu-metal scene have the detriment of being products of their time. However, Chris seemed to find the key to long-lasting success, which was exploring the many facets of alienation and melancholy alongside a maturing audience.

His music with Audioslave often demonstrated a more intimate, poetic, and occasionally joyful side, fueled by a newfound Greek Orthodox faith and a growing family. The grinding and powerful “Show Me How to Live” is a desperate prayer from a Frankenstein-like being asking to know how to exist as a man. Meanwhile, “Like a Stone” has Cornell singing about the process of understanding various spiritual traditions through the descriptions of their afterlives. Most surprising are some of the songs from the Out of Exile album, including the title track, which has Chris celebrating the birth of his child, his ongoing successful relationship, and perhaps some spiritual clarity as he paraphrases the Psalms in discussing how his blessings have built over time. Whether he is being mildly coy or intentionally vague, he does not directly say who the blessings are from, but the language is unmistakably Christian. It is a celebration of being in a place of fulfillment.

Depression and melancholy are two different things, though the latter used to be a medical term for the former. Depression is a disease, one that must be recognized and treated, and one that harms even the most devout and energetic of Catholics and Christians. Upon hearing of the Calvinist concept of predestination in his early adult years, St. Francis de Sales suffered a depression so aching that he was bedridden for a time. St. Maximillian Kolbe suffered from bouts of depression throughout his adult life. (Saint) Mother Theresa famously suffered severe depression and even occasional periods of doubt in her faith for most of her adult life. St. Therese of Lisieux fell into a deep depression near the end of her own short life, to the point that demons surrounded her deathbed until she had a vision of Jesus and Mary as she drew her last breath. Melancholy, on the other hand, is a neutral condition—sometimes colloquially called “the blues”—but one which can also be a beautiful disposition of the soul.

Melancholic personalities contain a rich love of the beauty of the world, of philosophical questions, and of others. When damaged, they hold those wounds deep in their own hearts and feel a tremendous loss of self-image. These are artists, writers, musicians, and creators who wish to be the paintings they desire to create, but who hide those paintings continually under a curtain, only allowing a particular few to peer under that curtain. Saint Edith Stein, also known as Saint Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, was a melancholic personality who made a tremendous theologian and philosopher. She also suffered deeply from depression, as she found her internal world quite different from the physical world around her. Speaking of her depression in a letter, she explained, “That condition lasted for years until I found the place where there is rest and peace for all restless hearts.”

Cornell might have found a kindred spirit in such a Saint, who knew the struggle of living with a soul that felt everything deeply and struggled to communicate this with others. Edith Stein was a philosopher who fought with being Catholic or Jewish, with being a secular or religious philosopher. Cornell struggled with comprehending a lasting love. In his own collection, Chris Cornell had very few love songs with Soundgarden or Temple of the Dog. Audioslave gave him a few more, as his music started to explore love in a careful, vulnerable manner. Near the end of his life, he finally found himself contemplating and nursing his soul, hurt from heartbreak and from the labors of loving and losing, with the surprisingly gentle “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart” from a solo album called Higher Truth. Then in his very last release before his death in 2017, he released “The Promise” as part of the movie of the same name, reflecting in a sweet, somber, reverent manner on the way love echoes through time and generations. From an artist who wrote very few love songs, Cornell certainly opened his heart one last time to demonstrate what moves a deeply thoughtful soul-the concepts of the eternal, the hopeful, and the beautiful. 

These are concepts which we as Catholics, often called to be joyful in impossible and desperate circumstances, must cling to in order to grow and to thrive. We see Catholics and non-Catholics alike who fall to suicide, and that deep and devastating question remains of whether or not God’s grace truly suffices. Looking through this catalog of music, and recognizing what is at the bottom of it, the answer becomes “yes”, despite everything. Despite the brutality of depression, self-hate, and even suicide, God remains, waiting for us to allow our deepened hearts to fall ever closer to Him and to reach for that hope that strikes through the trauma of generations and a broken world. 

May the soul of Chris Cornell, all who have suffered so deeply in this lifetime, and all the faithful departed, through the mercy of Christ, rest in peace. 



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