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Chris Bell - I Am The Cosmos (Deluxe Edition)

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Artist: Chris Bell

Album: I Am The Cosmos (Deluxe Edition)

Label: Ardent

Review date: Apr. 30, 2010

In December of 1978, two years after he’d finished the solo recordings that would eventually be compiled and released as I Am The Cosmos, Big Star co-founder Chris Bell drove his car into a tree near his home and died instantly. It was a tragic end to the life of an enormously creative and talented musician who sadly didn’t live long enough to see his work get the appreciation it so clearly deserved. At the time of Bell’s death, Big Star was still largely an unknown band. And while Bell had recorded enough material for a full-length album, no label was interested in releasing one. His lone solo release, a 45 of "I Am The Cosmos" and "You And Your Sister," had finally come out in a small pressing on a label run by Big Star mega-fan Chris Stamey of the dB’s just a few months before Bell’s death.

In 1992, around the time of the first Big Star reunion, Rykodisc first pulled together this compilation from the small collection of multi-track recordings Bell had been tinkering with over the last few years of his life. After his tumultuous split with Big Star in 1972, Bell primarily collaborated with bassist Ken Woodley and drummer Richard Rosebrough. They recorded tracks at several studios in Memphis, them Bell traveled with his brother to Europe, mixing and overdubbing at studios outside Paris and at Abbey Road in London with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. The songs Bell left behind from those various sessions, much like his work with Big Star, alternate between ferocious, soulful rockers like "I Got Kinda Lost" and "Get Away," and gorgeous open-tuned acoustic ballads like "Speed of Sound" and "You and Your Sister." In addition to the trio of Bell, Woodley, and Rosebrough, I Am The Cosmos features guest appearances by all of the other original members of Big Star: Alex Chilton, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens. Big Star engineers/producers John Fry, Terry Manning and Jim Dickinson all contributed to the sessions as well. One could reasonably argue that Bell’s I Am The Cosmos is at least as worthy of carrying the Big Star name as Chilton and Stephens’ Third/Sister Lovers.

Bell dealt with many demons in his short lifetime, so it’s not surprising that there’s a palpable sadness to just about all of the songs on Cosmos. He sings repeatedly about unrequited love. There’s a lover whose family doesn’t accept him ("You And Your Sister") and a friend — possibly a bandmate? — who was mean to him and made him feel like a fool ("Make A Scene"). He sings about no longer having whatever it was that once made his life worth living, and now just "waiting to die" ("There Was A Light"). By all accounts, Bell had turned to Christianity toward the end of his life, and while his spiritual longing is a major theme on several tracks, they’re far from straightforward Christian songs. There’s so much anger and pain and confusion in Bell’s voice and in the lyrics to songs like "Better Save Yourself," in which Bell references his own suicide attempts before saying "you shoulda gave your love to Jesus / It couldn’t do you no harm." It’s not exactly the most uplifting plea for salvation. The song "Look Up" seems on its surface to be about how much God wants to love us, but could just as easily be interpreted to be about Bell desperately wanting to be able to love someone.

To improve on such a remarkable and utterly classic collection of music would be a tall order, and while the tracks culled for the bonus disc on this new edition of the album are enjoyable, they’re not all that revelatory. The most welcome addition to the "Deluxe Edition" of Cosmos are the great new liner notes by Memphis-based journalist Bob Mehr. With or without the second CD of slightly different takes and mixes, and a very small number of truly never-before-heard songs, I Am The Cosmos is one of the two or three greatest "lost albums" in the history of rock and roll, and equally as great as any of the first three Big Star albums.

By Rob Hatch-Miller

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