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Outshined: The Pain And Beauty Of Chris Cornell

He sang about depression better than almost anyone

By Nikki Darling

I woke up the morning of May 18 to an image of Chris Cornell on my phone. I have loved Cornell’s work deeply for more or less my entire life, and it’s not uncommon for friends to send me pictures of him, so I texted a heart back. It wasn't until later, when my phone slowly began to blow up with sad emojis and "thinking of you"s, that I finally saw the news: Cornell, 52, had been found dead in a hotel bathroom in Detroit. His death was later ruled a suicide by hanging. Conflicted loss and sorrow swallowed me. I dropped the phone and sobbed.

When I was growing up, the music Cornell made with Soundgarden felt like a balloon in a rainstorm. Like countless fans, I drew strength from the way his voice embodied a relentless fight to stay afloat. Often people try to love depression away from its chronic victims, only to find themselves sliding into the same swamp. Cornell’s gift was that he could touch both sides of the wound — the frustration of depression, and how it cripples relationships to others and ourselves. "Black Hole Sun" and "Fell on Black Days" pivot from this familiar place. They're songs about the speed with which depression cycles through, then leaves with no apparent cause or reason.

In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, he discussed the process of writing "Fell on Black Days": “There wasn't a catastrophe. There wasn't a relationship split up. Nobody got in a car wreck. Nobody's parents died or anything. The outlook had changed, while everything appears circumstantially the same. That was the song I wanted to write about. No matter how happy you are, you can wake up one day without any specific thing occurring to bring you into a darker place, and you'll just be in a darker place anyway.”

Cornell’s music does more than confirm the maddening futility of trying to feel better when your brain is hardwired to feel bad. It touches on the most agonizing part of depression — the part that makes you wonder if you are indeed addicted to suffering, creating problems because you don’t know how to live without chaos. If all this is your fault, and if you could just get your shit together and stop destroying friendships, start paying bills, keep important deadlines, and crawl from under the muck of self-pity, you might be all right. Again and again, Cornell sang about how exhausting this cycle can be, of suffering and not knowing why.

His 1999 solo album Euphoria Morning, which he retitled Euphoria Mourning for its 2015 reissue — the name he had originally conceived but was talked out of — chronicles in moody detail what it’s like to frustrate those around you, to suck the time and energy of others without being able to give back. On "When I’m Down," Cornell sings, "I know you're reaching out, and you need to feel my hand / You wanna be loved, yeah well I understand / I know you hold precious little hope for me / And in your happiness, I’m always drowning in my grief." Not long after that album's release, he went into treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction. "I realized I’m not special," he explained. "I’m just like everybody else."

Cornell knew he was a beautiful man — "looking California and feeling Minnesota," as he sang on Soundgarden's 1991 song "Outshined." The combination of his chiseled features, large, emotive blue eyes, and lean, muscled body (which he felt comfortable showing off, at least in his younger, long-haired days) with the technical range and unique quality of his voice made him the perfect mark for a Jesus Christ pose. His beauty came with an extreme vulnerability that drew others to him. In his last music video, for 2015's "Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart," a man is hung from the gallows. Cornell, in character, watches with what seems like a combination of disbelief, desire, and rage. It’s how many of us, too, feel now that he's gone.