Chris Bell “I Am The Cosmos”

I Am The Cosmos

I dithered about reviewing Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos for months, in part because I was struggling to decide exactly what I wanted to say about it, in part because of its ambiguous status: formerly considered a “lost album” but nowadays a recognised classic (for the measure of its current standing, read the heartfelt reviews on Amazon.com), whilst actually not an album as conceived, but a compilation of tracks laid down over the six years before his death in 1978 and only issued in collected form fourteen years later to cash in on the renewed interest in Alex Chilton’s tempestuous career. Whatever: such an exceptional record deserves a slot on The Rising Storm.

Chris Bell’s history is extensively available on the Internet, so I’ll eschew my usual historical perspective and offer a purely personal appreciation. I bought the CD in 2001 as a clearance bargain, the insert booklet having gone missing; hence I do not have, and have not read, the highly-rated explanative booklet essay by Chris’s brother David. I knew of Chris as an ex-founder member of Big Star, but I knew nothing of his subsequent music, nor of his repressed homosexuality, clinical depression, heroin addiction and untimely ending, and it was mostly the mystique of the title I Am The Cosmos that prompted me to pick the album up. It didn’t turn out to be the neo-psychedelic exposition the title suggested, but one of the most intimately personal and bittersweet singer-songwriter collections I’ve ever heard: twelve absolutely exquisite compositions, mostly despairing songs of unrequited love, barely leavened with a couple of gently evangelical, faintly optimistic near-hymns.

Musically, the album runs the whole gamut from harsh, primitive electric tracks, all splintered guitars, thunderous drum fills and Spectoresque reverb, to sweet acoustic numbers with the softest possible string or woodwind coloration. Among the many original touches, “Speed Of Sound” pitches the acoustics against “violin-ed” lead guitar, marimba and swelling synth, whilst the quirky “Fight At The Table” features barrelhouse piano and an odd, wah-ed bass line, and the gentle Fender Rhodes on “Though I Know She Lies” is complemented by a crying George Harrison-like slide guitar. Despite all this variety the overall feel is homogeneous enough to almost convince you that the album was recorded as a single entity. Chris’s vocal throughout is high and keening, and mostly double-tracked with a dissonance that lends yet further pathos to his lyrical delivery. I don’t often attach the greatest importance to lyrics, preferring to hear the voice more as a principal instrument, but given the nature of this record they’re a quintessential and indivisible part of the package: simple, almost naïve and childlike, but utterly honest and expressive – just incredibly sad, without a trace of the cynicism present in some of Alex Chilton’s writing.

If you feel like getting emotionally wrung out one evening, try playing this end-to-end with Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night, Kurt Cobain’s In Utero and Elliott Smith’s eponymous second album. It’ll either make you feel much better or have you reaching for the razor blades.

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“Speed of Sound”

:D CD Reissue | 1992 | Rykodisc | at amazon ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]


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6 Comments.

  • dk

    A trustworthy music friend gave me a CDR of this one right when it was re-issued. I gave it a few spins and didn’t think much of it (never been a huge Big Star man myself), but your write-up provides some much-needed context and has me pulling it off the shelf for a re-evaluation.

    Another excellent review Len – you’re knocking them out the park left and right lately…

  • Len Liechti

    Thanks for the kind words, dk. I should have pointed out that this album, as with most other tragic masterpieces, is by no means a first-hearing winner; I had to play it half-a-dozen times over a period of a couple of weeks to appreciate what’s going on below the surface. Also, as with most art some knowledge of its circumstances of production is indeed benefical (I was always fascinated by the abstract painting of Pollock and Rothko, but learning the WHY as well as the WHAT greatly increased my appreciation). Best of luck in your rediscovery.

  • I must tip my hat to the song choices. Most reviews of this record would have focused on the title track or “You and Your Sister,” a genuine masterpiece. That’s the value of an album that has a slow reveal. Sometimes you need to be in the correct mindset for a song to hit you. This record has its share of heavy hitters. (I tend to gravitate to “Look Up.”) To paraphrase Jimmie Dale Gilmore, sad songs can make you feel good. Lord knows Chris Bell could verbalize heartache. Sadly beautiful, as another songwriter said.

  • I bought this based on your review and I couldn’t be more happy about it. Thanks for your passionate review and history lesson. Having been a Big Star fan, I’m not sure how I was not familiar with this, but it’s incredible stuff.

  • e hurt

    the thing about Bell is that he was half a rocker and half a wimp. which isn’t a bad thing–but I do prefer the rocking stuff here like “I Don’t Know,” which gives listeners the skinny on the mannerist approach Memphis powerpop groups took to their basic British Invasion materials. The wimpy stuff like “Speed of Sound” is nice too, and listening to the Big Star box late last year I found I quite liked Bell’s folkieisms on songs like “Country Morn.” The other thing is perspective: most all these tunes were bootlegged on cassette for years here in the South, so we’d heard it all by the time Ryko put out the reissue. The other thing I’d note about Bell is the general unhealthy feel of it all; Chilton kinda took the approach that the simple forms of Stax and rockabilly and so forth were a good antidote to the depressive aspects of what he and Bell did in Big Star. Grew up. Bell probably believed in his British Invasion a bit too much, and it’s the distance between his reality (altho he was a rich kid from the Memphis ‘burbs, but still…) and what he though Merry Olde England was like. So “Cosmos” isn’t a record I listen to very much any more; if I want depression I’ll go with the third Big Star album.

  • Cu Con

    Anyone have the deluxe edition from Rhino?

    I’m curious if the extras really add anything.

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