Review: I Am The Cosmos (Deluxe Edition) by Chris Bell
I Am The Cosmos (Deluxe Edition)
By Chris Bell
The late Chris Bell’s posthumous debut album I Am The Cosmos arrived in 1992 freighted with the kind of backstory that would have garnered attention no matter the qualities of the record itself.
Bell, a founding member of the laterally revered Memphis power pop quartet Big Star, left the group after their 1972 debut #1 Record in such a hurricane of acrimony, he allegedly erased the multitrack master tape for the album. A battle with drugs and a personal spiritual reawakening followed. His admirably devoted brother David took him to Europe, were Chris gigged and recorded (at France’s Chateau d’Herouville and London’s AIR), then back to Memphis for more work at Ardent and Shoe. Aside from a very promising 1978 single on Chris Stamey’s Car label (“I Am The Cosmos” b/w “You And Your Sister”), none of the tracks surfaced and in 1978 he was managing some of his family’s chain of Danver’s fast food restaurants. In December of that year, driving back from working on new music, Chris Bell wrapped his Triumph around a pole and was dead at 27.
For anyone who had feasted on the slender Big Star oeuvre, Ryko’s initial release of Bell’s unreleased solo material was a motherlode and a shock, like discovering new chapters to a favorite novel. Now comes a deluxe reissue by RhinoHandmade – the online only imprint – with the original album appended with a full disc of alternate versions, different mixes and unfinished projects.
I Am The Cosmos still makes its most profound impression as a document of the swinging pendulum of the psyche. The title cut is one of the most nuanced evocations of the struggle for self-confidence in the face of life’s withering setbacks. “Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos,” Bell practically sobs in a voice pungent with heartache, “but that don’t bring you back again.” And yet, the Christian faith, which, according to the liner notes, buoyed Bell through his travails, is just as vividly evoked in the graceful “Look Up.”
It’s not all a downer. Bell is a convincing rocker on “Make A Scene,” “Get Away” and “Got Kinda Lost.” These songs would have slotted nicely alongside such Big Star rockers as “About A Mover” or “Mod Lang.” And for additional “what if” fodder, there’s the classic “You And Your Sister,” a duet with Bell’s Big Star band mate Alex Chilton. Whatever choppy water had passed under the bridge between the two, they clearly still shared a musical chemistry. For an eyebrow raising account of their relationship, check out this blog post from Will Rigby.
Of the bonus material included in this edition, there are three tracks by Big Star precursor bands Icewater (the previously unissued “Looking Forward” and “Sunshine”) and Rock City (an early take of “My Life Is Right,” which first appeared on the 2003 collection Rock City and was later re-recorded by Big Star). Important for completists, but not what you’d call essential. There’s two alternate versions of “Get Away,” the earlier labeled “I Don’t Know,” the later featuring Chilton sitting in on guitar; both include a thundering extended intro that was unwisely gassed from the final cut. An early try at “You And Your Sister” features added mellotron and Bell’s double-tracked voice , and another version is stripped to Bell’s voice and guitar. An “extended” version of “I Am The Cosmos” is slower, and absent a fadeout at the end; the woozy, stumbled finish somehow fits the song. Alternate mixes of “Fight At The Table,” “Make A Scene” and “Better Save Yourself” document the myriad sonic tributaries Bell might have followed on any given track. Three later tracks – including collaborations with Keith Sykes (“Stay With Me” – not The Faces song) and Nancy Bryan (“In My Darkest Hour” – not the Megadeth song) and an instrumental tidbit entitled “Clacton Rag” – provide little more than evidence that Bell did have an active musical life outside his relationship to Big Star and I Am The Cosmos.
With the recent release of Rhino’s exemplary four-disc Big Star Box, Keep An Eye On The Sky, this has been a good season for Big Star fans. And an even better time to catch up.