Chris Bell “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.
“Speed of Sound”