Chris Bell – I Am the Cosmos [Deluxe Edition] (Rhino Handmade, 2009)
Big Star founder Chris Bell, like his band, is an enigma whose mystery has endured even as his details have been dispensed in retrospective bits and pieces. At the time of his greatest achievement, Big Star’s #1 Record, he and his band’s fame extended only to the rock literati. By the time the Big Star cult began to build, stoked by the reissue of their first two albums in the summer of 1978, Bell was only months away from death, at the age of 27, in a single vehicle car crash. At the time few had sought out his artistic details or inspirations, and musical archaeologists piecing together the strands of Big Star originally had to work from scant materials: the iconic Big Star album, a solo single of “I Am the Cosmos” b/w “You and Your Sister,” a few fanzine articles, and reminiscences of his friends and family.
Interest in Big Star continued to grow, but with Alex Chilton avoiding the press and Bell no longer living, details had to be divined from bits and pieces added retrospectively to the group’s legacy. Chilton released an EP, Singer Not the Song, in 1977, the long-delayed release of Big Star Third came in 1978, along with Bell’s single, and Chilton then released a string of solo albums that diverged further and further from his work with Big Star. It would be another eight years until the first two Big Star albums would appear on CD in 1986, and another six years until additional archival material was made available. In 1992 the floodgates opened with Ryko’s release of Big Star’s vintage radio performance, Live, and Chris Bell’s mid-70s solo album I Am the Cosmos.
The genesis of Bell’s solo recordings lay in the same aftermath from which Chilton bred Big Star Third. Bell had departed Big Star after the failure of #1 Record in 1972. From all reports, including Rob Jovanovic’s Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop, Bruce Eaton’s Radio City 33-1/3, and Bob Mehr’s lengthy essay in this deluxe reissue, Bell took the failure of #1 Record harder than anyone else, and by the sound of his solo recordings, he didn’t seem to have ever fully recovered. Recording in Memphis, France and England in 1974, and continuing to tinker with the recordings at Ardent for several more years, the results aren’t as anarchic as Chilton’s post-Big Star sessions, but they’re often as edgy. Most of the adolescence and winsomeness of Big Star had been rubbed out of both singer-songwriters by this point.
Several of Bell’s post-Big Star performances sound stressed, as if he’s striving to find meaning among ruined expectations for #1 Record and a mental state that wasn’t always sunny. The recordings can fatigue listeners’ ears with the high-end of Bell’s voice and the piercing splash of cymbals, but there are moments of musical art that match anything he’d achieved before. The album’s title track, presented in both its finished form and a slower version that extends over five minutes (two minutes longer than Ryko’s 1992 edit), can be read simply as a plea to a departed lover, a reassessment of the musician’s attachment to his former musical mates, or as a metaphysical song to Bell’s own youth. It’s a powerful song whose interpretations deepen with time.
Another of the album’s aces is the ballad “You and Your Sister,” featuring Alex Chilton on backing vocal. Here the yearning in Bell’s lyric and voice, framed by a pair of delicately fingerpicked acoustic guitars, underlined by deep bass and filigreed by a string quartet will stop you in your tracks. Two alternate versions, both present on Ryko’s 1992 edition, show how the song developed. An earlier take from 1974 is busier, with double-tracked vocals and a mellotron in place of the strings; a demo, also from 1974, lays out the song’s emotion in a stark acoustic performance that’s equally as effective as the final production. The inward searching and outward seeking heard here, along with a general restlessness and sense of despair echoes throughout the album.
“Speed of Sound” features lushly strummed acoustic guitars, accompanied by bass, volume-flanged electric guitar, and primitive moog behind a lyric of romantic defeat, disappointment and devastation. An alternate version recorded during the same sessions is sung deeper and more wounded than the master take, and without the moog the focus stays squarely on the vocalist’s pain. Bell reunited with his former Big Star rhythm section of Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens for “I Got Kinda Lost” and “There Was a Light,” the former a guitar-driven rocker, the latter a mid-tempo piano-and-guitar ballad. Bell’s growing relationship with Christianity is heard in “Better Save Yourself” and “Look Up,” and by 1976, his last known track “Though I Know She Lies” finds his voice is remarkably restrained; it’s hard to tell whether he’s comfortable or defeated.
Bell shopped the tapes around, but even with several top-notch singles and strong album material he was unable to get anyone to release his solo album. Chris Stamey issued “I am the Cosmos” b/w “You and Your Sister” as a single in 1978, but the rest of the material sat in the vault for another fourteen years. It wasn’t until Ryko issued a CD in 1992 that Bell’s post-Big Star voice was widely heard. Rhino Handmade’s 2-CD reissue includes all of the material on Ryko’s original CD and adds a dozen extras that include pre-Big Star tracks from Icewater (“Looking Forward” and “Sunshine”) and Rock City (“My Life is Right”), alternate recordings and mixes of album cuts, early demos, and Bell’s contribution to the Keith Sykes Band on “In My Darkest Hour.” The set closes with a moving acoustic instrumental, “Clacton Rag,” showing off the emotion of Bell’s guitar playing.
The discs are delivered in a six-panel digipack alongside a 32-page booklet featuring an extensive essay by Bob Mehr and track notes by Alec Palao. Casual fans will be satisfied with the original Ryko single disc, but anyone trying to build a more detailed picture of Chris Bell will want to listen to and study the extra tracks, historical notes and photos presented here.