At the end of the day Audioslave are simply a bore. Predictable, pedestrian, pro forma. Less than the sum of their parts, the album and the band don’t even amount to an interesting failure, because the known quantities do what they have always done only this time in tandem—Chris Cornell howls and croons; the Rage cats trot out their Zep and Jimi riffs laced with Tom Morello’s turntablist guitar moves. It might have been more enthralling had Cornell induced the band to come to him for alternate tunings, odd time signatures, and general harmonic, melodic and rhythmic sophistication, and also if he had taken a look out the post-9-11 window for lyric inspiration. Maybe, maybe not.
Unlike funk, rock is not its own reward. Unlike hiphop, it lacks a built-in sociocultural-tribal context to lend even mediocre acts meaning. Rock matters when it matters because folk are driven to create their own context, and their own engaging forms of exorcism, catharsis, confession, and martyrdom. In Audioslave, nothing is on the line other than perhaps the principals’ impending sense of mass irrelevance, pretty much the norm for rock in mass culture these days. Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden were exceptional rock bands for different reasons—Soundgarden for their high-poetic use of punk ferocity, Cornell’s pipes, and tossed-off musicianly sleight-of-hand, Rage for Zach De La Rocha. The Mexican insurgent provided the requisite outsider rage as Morello provided the double-entendre against-the-machine theory, directed both at the state and at his generation’s electric guitar(s), the turntable and the sampler.
De La Rocha, less successful in transfiguring his hiphop dreams, was a failed rapper like Mick Jagger was a failed soul singer, and out of that failure came something that rocked profoundly—more so onstage, where his implacable dervish provided the berserker quotient all great rock bands need to justify their existence. His lyrics could be more didactic than Chuck D on a lazy day, but his fervent way with them made Rage matter beyond the moshpit. Love ’em or lump ’em, they left a major socio-subcultural hole as the only multicultural (Black, Mexican, Anglo) modern rock band that had the ear of the young white masses, the ardor of MTV, and the attention of progressive African American hiphop/rock heads like this writer’s vicious circle. (Soundgarden was also multicultural on the down low—Native American, South Asian, and at one point Japanese—but suitably assimilated and too bohemian at heart to make hay out of it.) It’s worth noting that on Rage’s last album, The Battle of Los Angeles, De La Rocha whispered and nearly crooned. You figured maybe on the next one he might even sing something resembling a pentatonic melody. Instead he went off to do a hiphop album that’s now, what, five years in the making?
On Letterman with the ex-Ragers recently, Cornell looked as if he’d have rather had a V-8—absolutely tired of himself, more than of the band per se. There was something of a “What am I doing here?” look on his face, which was understandable considering where he’d come from. If go you by the number of times it’s rotated in my Walkmen, Soundgarden’s Superunknown was my favorite hard rock album of the past 10 years. One album later they bowed out so gracefully that their disbanding was like their last great song. Rage, on the other hand, came apart at the seams as young, successful, ambitious, tension-filled bands will when there’s no love lost among them, or when the frontperson up and quits, or both.
‘Taint hard to find irony in the most left-wing banner-flying band of the ’90s breaking up before 9-11 and the passage of Asshcroft’s anti-Bill of Rights wet dream, the Patriot Act. How far Rage might push the fuck-tha-police envelope in these muted protest times is a fascinating question to ponder. Audioslave fails foremost because the songs lack that elusive frisson thing that invokes surrender and delirium, but they also fail to make their joining of two great fallen houses matter more than the phone call that got them in a room together. Henri Cartier-Bresson said the difference between a great photo and a mediocre one is a fraction of a second. The difference in rock and roll terms is between having a great idea for a song and actually writing an anthem. Listening to this album becomes drudgery as you track through it—mostly because too many things sound the same and those that don’t, mostly ballad things, appear as not quite spirit and not quite flesh. It’s as if some pathetic half-formed golem were still being laboriously stirred to life.